In the early 1990s, when I moved to Los Angeles from a small town in West Texas, the city was struggling to confront the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic. I took a job in a treatment clinic downtown because I longed to help the most vulnerable among us — and to do my part in providing them with the resources and care they needed.
Today, Los Angeles is in the midst of a different crisis: homelessness. Each night, tens of thousands of people are sleeping on sidewalks; thousands more are living in cars or shelters. There’s nothing new about this crisis. Since the early years of Skid Row, LA’s streets have been the city’s de-facto shelters.
The gravity of this crisis can feel overwhelming and dispiriting at times, because homelessness is not just experienced in one place, but everywhere. The truth is that we haven’t seen the magnitude of people experiencing homelessness as we are today.
Nonetheless, I approach our homelessness crisis with a renewed sense of promise — and believe we have good reason to be hopeful about the future. With the passing of Measures H and HHH, we are beginning to move in the right direction, creating the systems and implementing the programs that reshape how we help people experiencing homelessness. For the first time, LA County has increased its investment in direct services, growing the number of outreach workers and case managers who are equipped with an effective, streamlined system to connect people with services and housing assistance.
On top of this progress, public perception is changing. More and more Angelenos are recognizing the urgency. With the support of United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Everyone In campaign, people across the county are learning how to advocate for supportive and affordable housing in their neighborhoods.
“Homes end homelessness,” as the Everyone In campaign asserts, is not just a slogan. For folks on the frontlines, it’s a truth we hold closely and fight for every day.
I have experienced this shift in public opinion firsthand. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a congregation in Woodland Hills. And like many I have interacted with in recent months, most were longing to find opportunities to do more than pack hygiene kits and donate clothes. While they hoped to hear about how we are helping people experiencing homelessness, they yearned to learn how long-term housing solutions actually work.
I showed them a 30-minute clip from “The Advocates,” a documentary that reveals the stories of frontline outreach and caseworkers who are fighting on behalf of those experiencing homelessness, working tirelessly to get them supportive housing and critical services.
As the clip concluded, the room fell silent. I was humbled, but I was not surprised. Indeed, every person I’ve shown this film to has had a similar reaction — a real aha moment.
And that’s because “The Advocates” begins to answer one of the most pressing questions that has been weighing on our collective conscience for so long: What does it take to get a person experiencing homelessness back into the safety and stability of a home?
The truth is that it takes a lot: an empathic relationship that often takes months to build, jumping through dozens of hoops (“hoops of fire,” we call them), and set-backs.
But then, you have that moment of yes — when you find someone a place to call home, supportive housing. With that home comes an enriching community with wraparound services such as life skills and job skills training and health care services that can really change a life.
With each yes I witness at Housing Works, I remember why I do this work. And I remember why everyone in Los Angeles must join us in this fight.
Celine Alvarez is executive director of the nonprofit Housing Works.
For a related story titled “Housing First,” please see page 9.