A Hometown With Not Enough Homes By Joel John Roberts

A Hometown With Not Enough Homes By Joel John Roberts

Like many other city halls across this country, a sprawling neighborhood park surrounds the center of local power. Lincoln Park is the name of the green area in front of the towering city hall of Long Beach, my hometown that is just south of Los Angeles, California.

A few years ago, I moved back to the town of my youth only to find dozens and dozens of homeless persons living in the city park. Most visitors to this seaside community would think it was like any other large metropolitan city where homeless persons flock to the city center for refuge – Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, you name it.

The images of hurting people wrapped in blankets or huddled on city benches brought me back to memories of decades before, when I was a young adult working in a Long Beach homeless agency. These same pictures of extreme poverty decades later were signs that this country failed in its effort to address homelessness.

Until now.

Two years ago, Mental Health America, a Long Beach-based homeless agency, and PATH, the agency I run, joined forces to mobilize a community desperate in need for a solution to this city’s rampant human crisis of homelessness. Four thousand homeless persons in this city was just too much.

An informal community initiative called Long Beach Connections was formed to adopt a Vulnerability Index approach to addressing homelessness. The leaders of Community Solutions, founded in New York City, came to Long Beach in 2009 to help spearhead the survey.

Over 100 Long Beach volunteers from local faith groups, schools, homeless agencies, and businesses joined city leaders, law enforcement, and emergency services to canvass the downtown area of the city looking for the most vulnerable homeless persons on the streets – we surveyed 345 homeless persons within blocks of city hall.

The thinking at the time was that if this city could successfully house homeless persons from the impacted area of downtown, the rest of the city would replicate the model. Without significant funding and no promises of housing vouchers, the simple goal was to permanently house ten of the most hurting homeless persons in the city.

Two years later, this community housed eight times more than its original goal – 80 people, or almost a quarter of the people surveyed.

Most people were floored by the success, including people who were housed. Like, Ron, who had barely survived on the streets for 38 years. He was 22 years old when he became homeless, and most people in the community gave up on him since he had been in and out of shelters for decades. You know Ron, he is the homeless person that everyone in the community knows.

But when his name popped up on the Vulnerability Index, and homeless agency caregivers approached him, he relented to an opportunity to get his own apartment. The hard years on the streets took a toll on his resolve.

Faith Groups in the city rallied their resources to make sure that every person walking through their own apartment would have a home filled with furniture, linens, and a house-warming gift. We call it a “Welcome Home Registry.”

Landlords in the area have embraced this initiative. One owner allowed a handful of homeless young adults to rent his apartments. The landlord was so enthralled with the idea of helping these youth, that he enticed the youth to get good grades at the local junior college by reducing their rent.

This month, Long Beach Connections 2.0 is roaring to go. With support from L.A. County Supervisor Knabe, Hilton Foundation, HUD, the United Way of Greater L.A., and the City of Long Beach, the community will once again perform a second Vulnerability Index in downtown Long Beach.

Typically, the second generation of a new product or initiative is usually much better than the first. Could a Vulnerability Index 2.0 far exceed the original 80 housing placements that started with basically no funding? With so much support, could we dare imagine a downtown neighborhood with no homelessness?

My simple hope is that my hometown becomes a town with enough homes for everyone.


Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) based in Southern California, and is the publisher of PovertyInsights.org and a writer for Huffington Post.



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