LocationAlhambra , CA United States
The 2018 Homeless Count numbers were clear. Homelessness has dropped for the first time in five years in Los Angeles County. Local leaders have credited that progress to increased funding for housing and services and better coordination between political, non-profit and community-based stakeholders. Now one of those stakeholders, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, wants your participation. They’ve launched “Everyone In,” a digital campaign that empowers L.A. County residents to be part of the solution to end homelessness. We spoke to Chris Ko, the United Way’s Director of Homeless Initiatives, via phone and email for more information about how Alhambra residents can get involved.
What is “Everyone In” and what’s the purpose of it?
“Everyone In” is a communication, engagement and organizing campaign that we’re doing to involve people in the solutions to homelessness. That’s the broad concept of it. The reason why we’re ramping up the public engagement portion of our work is because we feel like we have the plan and we have a good amount of funding. So at this point, public engagement and awareness is critical to be able to execute the plans successfully.
Can you go into why the public engagement is critical?
We did a poll where we asked if you had to choose between the two, solutions that take more time or quick fixes that can clean the streets quicker, what would you choose? The majority of the respondents said they would actually prefer the root cause solutions if it took longer than a quick visual fix. But we have to explain how these plans translate into root cause solutions since it’s difficult for people to wait on them. Otherwise, some of these plans in place might not make it all the way to the finish line without full public understanding and engagement.
Are there specific plans you have in mind that are in danger of that or that you’re focusing on?
The easiest one is housing. One of the simple messages is that housing ends homelessness. There are a lot of things that complicate and make that journey harder, like mental health, substance abuse disorder, chronic health conditions and loss of a job. But the one thing that everyone has in common is that they lost their home, and that is also the common thing that people need to exit homelessness.
Housing takes time for cities and regions to create. And so when you think about Alhambra for instance, the majority of the homeless population is unsheltered and on the street. And what we know from our unsheltered population is the people who are on the street tend to be a little sicker and require a little more support to get off the street, what we’ve typically called our chronically homeless population. So it’s not just a matter of more job programs or more benefits or just regular housing. There’s a specific kind of housing we call supportive housing for people to get off the streets for good. But the process of outreach and securing or creating that kind of housing takes time. And we understand how waiting on that is difficult when you’re not sure if any progress is being made.
And then the city planning process is also something that we need to give time. Alhambra right now is going through a city planning process that’s wrapping up. First you have a plan, then you have a period where you start executing the plan and then it takes time to see the results of the plan. So there is a danger of giving up on your plan before you can start.
How does United Way work with cities and organizations to combat homelessness and what is its history of doing that in L.A. County?
We started looking at this issue in 2005 when the first official homeless count came out in L.A., and it showed that 90,000 people were experiencing homelessness. That was a startling number. We knew that it was always a major part of L.A.’s identity, but I think that number was jarring for everyone to see how dramatic the need was. Politicians tried to respond at that time and county leaders tried, and that was the first time that L.A. County responded with a $100 million plan. There were ideas to create five regional centers, one in each area, but the communities rejected that and the original plan went dormant.
At the same time, the plan LA had submitted to the federal government was rejected for being too vague, so there was need for additional leadership on the issue, and it was too important of a problem to ignore. So we jumped in to say, “We’ll work on ending homelessness, not just managing it.” We spoke with over one hundred community organizations and leaders to came up with a plan and launched it together with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and called that Home for Good. We thought this broad-based approach was important because when we looked at cities that made progress on the issue, the one variable that they had in common was non-traditional partners getting involved. Technically, we don’t have any formal responsibility over this issue – the Chamber of Commerce certainly doesn’t – but we felt like it was important for us to be part of the solution and point the fingers at ourselves.
So we dug in and we started with an awareness and fundraising walk called HomeWalk. It’s now in its 12th year and has grown to be the largest public event on homelessness nationally. We had thousands of people come and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which begged the question of where we were going to invest that energy and those resources. So that’s when we started talking with groups and started figuring out what the solutions needed to be. And we came to learn that supportive housing at that time was a unique challenge to create but also a unique solution. In the face of an overwhelming homelessness crisis, we discovered that 25 percent of the population was consuming about 75 percent of the resources, and this was the group that was stuck on the street but could make it out successfully with supportive housing.
And once we created more of this valuable resource, we knew it needed to be delivered to all parts of the county. We called this resource delivery system the Coordinated Entry System, which Union Station Homeless Services now leads for the San Gabriel Valley. And with a navigation contract in place, Alhambra is connected into this countywide system now.
As county leadership emerged, and as these plans came online, that’s when we felt like, “Wow, now we really need to engage people in these plans.” These plans didn’t exist before, but now a strong set of strategies plus a community-based resource delivery system. Now we have plans with strong public leadership. And with the passage of Measure H, now we have more than 500,000 voters who are literally invested in the solution. So it felt like the right time to continue the conversation with our voters and call residents and even cities directly to be involved in that implementation.
Right now we’re targeting that at three major goals. One which is to reduce the number of people living on the streets, creating more supportive housing and growing the capacity of our community-based partners to be able to provide those services. We’ll speak to what that means for your everyday resident but to give a few examples for agencies: we have a capacity-building grant right now that’s open. So any non-profit who might have been providing services, but they aren’t able to successfully compete for public contracts – or maybe they’ve been getting public contracts, but they’ve been struggling under this weight of all this new responsibility and they need to fix some things in their organization to keep up – we have a capacity building and technical funding opportunity out right now.
There are also two Innovation Challenges that were just announced: the Housing Innovation Challenge and the LA Homelessness Challenge. Grants totaling nearly $5 million will be available for those with the most game-changing idea or existing program for housing development or service delivery and wants to grow that impact to a larger scale.
If I’m a typical person who wants to get involved, what can I do?
Alhambra is at a perfect point for engagement because you have a homeless plan coming together. So I’d say absolutely get involved in the homeless planning process. And join those conversations. At the same time, there is a San Gabriel Valley Consortium on Homelessness that also has conversations about how to plug in and help at a regional level.
And through “Everyone In,” we have opportunities for people to then take the next step with our regional organizer that we’ve dedicated to the area, Beatrice Sandoval. You can join the team at everyoneinla.org/get-involved/. We’re going to be doing more regional work in the San Gabriel Valley of educating, training and deploying people to where housing is under debate or is being considered. We’ll have trainings, support for putting on house parties and even canvassing and phone banking opportunities in the future. We know the interest and support is there, but we want to help activate that quiet majority to speak out in support and understand the issue more deeply.
We’ll also be hosting a storytelling event in the San Gabriel Valley in the coming year so look out for that. That will be a moment where people are sharing their stories of coming home. It’s an easy way to understand the homelessness problem but more importantly feel the solution. When we localize and humanize this massive problem, we know real change is possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed.