It can be hard out there, our homeless community knows. Los Angeles, a city billed as a place to live your dreams, can be an incredibly tough city to live in. With rents on older buildings increasing and pricey designer new developments pushing in on coveted city space, I am often surprised that anyone can afford to live here. Students, artists, actors, producers, web developers and techies, legal eagles, therapists and film and tv talent alike … I find most friends and colleagues having a hard time believing they could ever be actual home owners in this high-cost town yet somehow we all have found our places to nest. Whether choosing to move a bit further out from a favorite in town neighborhood or moving in with a new roommate, we are all fortunate to have a safe spot to call home. Yes, it can be hard out here but we all are keeping our dreams alive in this very expensive city we’ve chosen as home.
What continues to be a concern is why so many Angelenos still call home the literal streets and sidewalks of our city. Los Angeles has the second largest homeless population in the United States. In the 10 plus years I’ve lived here I’ve tried to do my part to help by volunteering with different organizations. From mornings at the LA Mission sorting clothes and organizing donations, to chopping fruits and veggies for meals at the Downtown Women’s Center and Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition to handing out quarters and dryer sheets for Laundry Love with my church. In showing up and simply looking out into the streets, I have seen this community grow and I know you have too. Not only has the homeless population grown but the faces and personalities we see on our streets are changing. I’m seeing younger people, more women and always men who want to find a place of their own. In my awkward conversations with these people that I have volunteered to supposedly help, I find they have helped me with honesty and kindness in sharing their stories of how they got to be where they are. Which often feels it could be exactly where I would be if it weren’t for the love and support of a safety net called my family and friends. That seems to be the key difference between those of us getting by every month in our comfortable homes as opposed to regularly looking for a bed, a meal and shelter – the love, support and encouragement of a community that welcomes us.
45,000 is the approximate number of homeless men, women and children (yes children) who are officially homeless in Los Angeles county. I wasn’t sure how the city came up with that number so when I saw a social media post about the annual LA Homeless Census Count. I knew I needed to sign up. I recently moved to the Marina and wanting to better understand what’s happening in my neighborhood, I met up with a group at Venice Community Housing. There was a short orientation instructing us about how to count sleeping bags, encampments and parked vehicles without disturbing or engaging with anyone in the sections of neighborhoods we were assigned to walk or drive. As the census happens during the night when folks aren’t as transient we were asked to be respectful of the places they created as home as we would want to be respected in our spaces. Fortuitously, I was partnered with Taylor Bazley who is the Venice Field Deputy for 11th District Council Member Mike Bonin. Driving around with Taylor he was well versed in where we would see folks camped out. I also learned about the requests of West Side residents and how Mike and his team were trying to help his constituency by “putting neighborhoods first.” Cleaning up streets, parks, high traffic areas, etc, are needed tasks to help residents who pay thousands of dollars in rent, mortgages and property taxes know their home investments are being valued. And it’s understandable that everyone would want to live in a beautified and safe environment. When we turned down a street near Penmar Golf Course, Taylor mentioned we probably wouldn’t find any of the usual tents or encampments as new fencing had recently gone up to help secure the area. I had just that afternoon watched one of Mike’s speeches advocating for the homeless showing he and his team clearly recognize the needs of the homeless in his district. Talking with Taylor it became clearer what a peculiar balancing act it is for local officials to support home owners expectations for beautification while finding and creating resources for those who call the streets home.
OPCC is a sign I have become familiar with. My church is just behind one of their buildings off 26th Street in Santa Monica and anyone who enters the 10 Freeway heading west off Lincoln Blvd to connect with the PCH cannot miss their building with the giant white tent. OPCC stands for Ocean Park Community Center and it was started by a group of friends in, well, Ocean Park to help the growing number of homeless they met in their neighborhood. Since their inception they have grown to being “the largest social services agency on the Westside of Los Angeles.” Having joined with LAMP they are now operating under the name The People Concern.
My sister and I talk regularly about what can we do to help our neighbors who are on the streets. She is a Westsider also and our conversations often involve how to talk with her 8-year old daughter about why that man or woman is asking for money or food. There is a gentleman who clearly has found refuge in their neighborhood, I’ve seen him on different street corners and benches, and one evening my niece asked why he was wearing pants that were falling down. When you’re homeless having clothes that fit or that you’re able to wash regularly becomes part of the struggle. My mind went to ‘let’s go buy him a belt, start a fund to get him new clothes, grow the fund to get him groceries and bench delivery for dinner, a bigger fund to buy him a house!’ but before any of these not so brilliant ideas came out he had moved along his way and my moment to find a simple compassionate response had passed. It’s difficult to know how to explain homelessness to a child when we adults don’t do a good job explaining it to ourselves. In looking for better ways to understand, I knew I wanted more information. As I was familiar with The People Concern and my sister has a good friend who is on their leadership steering committee, reaching out to them for some answers seemed like the next purposeful step.
Domnick Hadley, their Marketing and Communications Director, was kind enough to sit down with me while I explained more of what I was looking for. He knew the best person to talk with was John Maceri, The People Concern’s Executive Director. I met with John a couple weeks ago, armed with my research and list of questions about their volunteer programs and outreach services for the homeless community they serve. He was gracious enough to spend a good hour of of his busy morning talking through numbers and programs, how The People Concern focuses their efforts, how many members of the homeless community are served, the generosity of their volunteers and patrons but as articulate and knowledgeable as he is and as prepared and professional as I tried to appear to be the heart of our conversation kept coming back to the topic that the most urgent of issues always seeks to define – why. Why we need to care and why we need to stay committed to finding solutions for our friends and neighbors who make the streets their home. The statistics show that financial resources and community support will always be available. Looking at the cost to taxpayers to fund legal and medical services, the numbers prove it is more effective to provide housing first along with care, intervention and resources rather then paying for jail time and emergency room visits. Regardless of the financial possibility of creating solutions, the probability of creating them is where the problem lies. In life, we are so filled with ourselves that we too often miss seeing to even care to know what is going on with someone else. We are often so quick to judge and blame and presume without ever really wanting to understand let alone simply showing up and being there for someone in their moment of need. And that happens amongst those of us fortunate enough to have a home, a car, a job, a warm meal in our belly, a family to go to. Recognize now how often we ignore those in need who are truly suffering every day. How easy it is for all of us to walk by that person sleeping on the sidewalk. Even John, is his dedication and service having been with The People Concern since 2000 and working with non profits since the 1980’s in support of people living with HIV and AIDS, had grown somewhat numb to it because living with people who live on the streets has become so normal for all of us. It took an outsider to wake John up to be reminded that homelessness is not normal, is not what this life is about, it is in fact, completely unconscionable that we would let another person languish on the streets and in pain. I watched John’s TedxUCLA from a few years back. The relevancy of his talk is still heavy with me and I am hoping that the message he knows to be true is becoming more relevant to all of us.
Angelenos do seem to be waking up. In November we passed Measure HHH which provides housing initiative funding for the most vulnerable of us. This March we have the opportunity to continue that support by passing Measure H which funds the needed services and programs for outreach to our homeless neighbors. Saying NO to Measure S would help push the funding we have already approved towards getting more cost effective apartments and homes built. We are on our way but it will take all of us continuing to be involved through conscious and compassionate effort to help, house and comfort all of us that call Los Angeles home.
THIS IS PART 1 IN A SERIES OF POSTS BY RONA NIX IN HER ONGOING RESEARCH ABOUT THE LA HOMELESS SITUATION AND HOW WE CAN HELP.