“Hey, Big Dog,” Sean Davis shouts out of his van’s open window to a man he recognizes walking on the pavement. Davis has long had a rapport with most of the homeless people he encounters in his job as “housing navigator” with Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena.
“If they are not ready to transition off the streets we offer them food, blankets and clothing for survival on the streets,” says Davis, who at six-feet four inches tall cuts an imposing figure, towering over some of the homeless men and women he tries to help during a day’s work.
As of 2017, there were 575 homeless people living in Pasadena, with 347 of those people unsheltered. Males represent two-thirds of that number, with 11 percent of those men and women 62 and older, according to Joe Colletti, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Urban Initiatives in Pasadena.
The 39-year-old Davis personally knows what it’s like to live on the street. In 2006, he and his then-9-year-old son were homeless, mostly living in his car, but occasionally staying at the homes of friends. They even slept in public bathrooms a few times.
His problems slowly evolved beginning at age 19, with the deaths of his mother and father, then both grandmothers, and finally a grandfather over the span of seven years. The young father had nowhere to turn.
“Nobody was available to help me. Nobody,” Davis recalled.
Right Next Door
Over the past several years, the homeless situation in communities across Los Angeles County has been described as nothing short of a crisis, with tens of thousands of people calling the streets home.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) the homeless count in 2017 for Los Angeles County was 57,794, with three-quarters of those people living on the streets without shelter. Single men account for 76 percent, or 44,000 of the total. Family members number 7,814, or 14 percent, and youth under the age of 18 total nearly 6,000.
LA County and City voters have been willing to throw money at the problem in hopes of making it go away quickly, but that isn’t happening.
Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax proposed by the LA County Board of Supervisors that is projected to raise $355 million a year, was approved last March by nearly 70 percent of the ballots cast.
Just months prior to that, voters in the city of LA overwhelmingly approved a $1.2 billion bond, Measure HHH, aimed at building new housing for homeless people. Yet, nearly two years after the bond’s overwhelming passage, people in record numbers continue living on the streets, said LA City Councilman Mike Bonin.
“In the past two years, elected officials and the electorate said ‘enough.’ We developed a comprehensive homelessness strategy, approved new dedicated funding, and started housing people at an impressive, record clip. Yet homelessness increased and encampments proliferated,” Bonin wrote in a recent column appearing in The Argonaut, a sister newspaper of the Pasadena Weekly.
Measure HHH was the brainchild of the Los Angeles City Council. The $1.2-billion general obligation bond would be paid through property taxes, according to Curbed LA, and used to finance the construction of supportive and affordable housing for homeless people in the city of LA. According to Ballotpedia, the cost to homeowners is about $9.64 a year for every $100,000 in property owned, or $33 a year for the average homeowner for 29 years.
The city plans to use this money to help finance 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing, with the city buying the land for the projects, leasing it to developers and financing part of the building costs. Along with housing, the bond money could also be used to pay for temporary shelters, showers and other facilities for the homeless; affordable housing open to extremely low- to low-income renters; and to add infrastructure like sidewalks around the new housing.
The bond measure was sponsored in part by City Councilman Huizar, whose district includes Eagle Rock.
In his column in the LA Times on Jan. 28, Steve Lopez questioned where all the money was going, because he was still seeing homeless people despite the speeches, promises and money.
Even after people voted to tax themselves, “[W]e’re not trying hard enough, and that goes for every City Council member and every county supervisor, and for every resident who says fix this problem, but whatever you do, don’t let them get back on their feet in my neighborhood,” Lopez wrote.
In Pasadena, housing officials have adopted a different approach to solving the community’s problems with people living on the streets, one not requiring a massive amount of funds but rather a simple policy change.
“We outreach to the homeless on the streets now as opposed to having the come to us,” said Anne Lansing, a project planner with the city who co-chairs the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network. Lansing was referring to Pasadena Street Outreach Rapid Response Teams, much like the one Davis is on, which work at moving chronically homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing.
“We know what to do and we know how to do it to end homelessness, but we have to implement it with community support,” Lansing says. Because of skyrocketing rents, more people than ever are being squeezed out of their homes and forced onto the street.
“We have the money to develop housing,” Lansing said. But, she said, echoing Lopez’s concerns about NIMBYism, “The public needs to be OK with developing in their neighborhoods. If not, we’re never going to end this problem.”
According to Bill Huang, Pasadena’s director of housing and career services, Pasadena will receive $600,000 in Measure H funds by July 1. Huang says he will attend a public hearing on Monday, March 26, at which the City Council will be asked to allocate these funds to be used specifically for “Landlord Incentives.”
As Huang explains, “A one-bedroom apartment is north of $2,000 per month, and because the rental vouchers for transitioning homeless are lower than the market rate, we will be able to offer landlords a holding fee for the first month, a security deposit and a series of incentives up to $2,000 to secure a homeless person into the rental.”
This is important to some people who may feel vulnerable in a shelter, “where they cannot have a shopping cart that may contain their only worldly valuables, and no pets are allowed.”
A Lengthy List
According to Ballotpedia, money raised through Measure H “will be used to generate ongoing funding to prevent and combat homelessness within Los Angeles County, including funding mental health, substance abuse treatment, health care, education, job training, rental and housing subsidies, case management and services, emergency and affordable housing, transportation, outreach, prevention, and supportive services for homeless children, families, foster youth, veterans, battered women, seniors, disabled individuals, and other homeless adults.”
And according to Naomi Goldman, a spokesperson for LAHSA, it is being put to those uses.
Among many early initiatives and successes, Goldman wrote, key outcomes from July to December 2017 include:
• The number of multidisciplinary teams has significantly increased, working across the County to address the immediate needs of homeless residents and link them to programs and services. By July 2018, the number of MDTs will increase from 20 to 36 (an 80 percent increase).
• Outreach teams have engaged 4,038 individuals.
• 7,297 participants entered crisis, bridge and interim housing, thanks to an expansion of the emergency shelter system.
• 3,350 homeless families and individuals secured permanent housing due specifically to funding from Measure H.
• Benefits advocacy teams have assisted 4,261 individuals with applications for Supplemental Security Income and Veterans Disability Benefits.
• Homeless service providers have added more than 1,000 new jobs across the region to enhance the delivery system — supported by a dedicated hub to link job seekers to nonprofits at jobscombattinghomelessness.org.
• Prevention programs have been launched to help families and individuals stay in their homes by helping with rent, utilities bills and other emergencies.
• An innovative grant program was enacted with 46 cities to develop city-specific plans to address homelessness in their communities.
The Measure H dollars are allocated to 21 interconnected strategies.
“We are currently going through the Measure H funding recommendations process for fiscal year 2018-19 and are in the midst of the public comment process.
“Thousands of individuals and families already have been helped through a major expansion of outreach, emergency shelter, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and benefits advocacy for homeless disabled adults — in all parts of the county,” Goldman wrote.
Men on a Mission
Having to take care of his young son, Davis refused to accept this lifestyle and worked odd jobs for enough money to find a place. After a year on the streets the Department of Social Security Services was able to help him get into a hotel.
He volunteered at the Bad Weather Shelter at the Pasadena Covenant Church gymnasium, and soon he began working there. After about a year, he began working at Union Station. Today his son is 20 years old, studying to be a fashion stylist at UC Riverside.
Davis said he looks to his supervisor, fellow Union Station social worker Keith Hendriksen, who was also once homeless, for answers and advice.
Hendriksen, whose father was a roadie for the Rolling Stones and was named Keith in honor of Keith Richards, had been homeless off and own for several years from the time he was 21.
“I went full circle,” referring to being homeless to working to help the homeless at Union Station in 2015. Now 36, married and a father, he looks back on his clear moment to transition off the streets.
“I didn’t want to be the person I was becoming,” Hendriksen said. “I had a spiritual awakening to know I wanted to give back to life rather than take from life. I wasn’t considering anyone else.”
Citing the Pasadena Partnership of Homelessness, made up of 40 different agencies, Joe Colletti of Urban Initiatives called Pasadena “unique” in its care for homeless people. “There is a collaboration between public and private organizations that is very impressive,” said Colletti, who takes the lead in writing the Continuum of Care grant application to the federal government for homelessness in Pasadena. The grant yields approximately $3 million per year.
Davis feels his personal experiences helped him find his mission to help others.
“People are homeless for many reasons you wouldn’t imagine, but usually it is a result of a traumatic event, an illness, mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction. My job is about life. They’re my people. I gotta’ look out for our own,” Davis said. “I take it personally. It’s my mission.”