Putting the Homeless in Homes, no Strings Attached

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Malibu Labor Exchange

The Community Assistance Resource Team (CART), a newly formed group of about 20 members in Malibu concerned about helping the homeless, met again last week to continue fact-finding on the issue. The group studied the Housing First program in Utah, which puts homeless people into homes, regardless of any problems they may have with drugs, alcohol, mental illness or health.

What Utah has proven is that giving permanent housing to a homeless person right off the bat should be the first step. Offering treatment for problems comes later.

Utah is spending less money now that they have provided homeless people with housing than it did when those people were homeless and in shelters, jail and emergency rooms. Utah’s Housing First program costs $10,000 to $12,000 per person annually, whereas caring for homeless people on the street was costing $20,000.

According to “Room for Improvement,” an article in the current issue of Mother Jones about the success of Utah’s homeless program, “In the past nine years, Utah has decreased the number of homeless by 72% … largely by finding and building apartments where they can live, permanently, with no strings attached. It’s a program, or more accurately a philosophy, called Housing First.”

It’s not as extravagant as it seems. 

Last week’s meeting kicked off with a video from Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” about Utah’s program for the homeless, which, studies show, has the best track record of any program in the country for getting homeless people off the street. The video was supplemented with copies of the Mother Jones article about Utah’s Housing First program. 

A number of major cities have tried their own versions of the program and seen similar results. Over the past 10 to 15 years, the success of these programs has caused a major paradigm shift in how programs for the homeless are set up.  

In the old paradigm, homeless people were told they had to straighten themselves out before being put into permanent housing, but the programs weren’t very successful because most found it too difficult and overwhelming to fight those problems and be homeless at the same time.

The meeting’s first speaker, Megan Colvard, associate director of community engagement with PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a 30-year-old nonprofit organization based in Silver Lake, with services extending from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, explained how her organization operates in the L.A. area. They have “outreach services” that consist of three-person teams that “go around in vans” searching for homeless and trying to get them off the street. These “boots on the ground” services are contracted for by various cities like Westwood. 

“PATH’s primary focus is on permanent housing solutions,” Colvard said. “We don’t believe a shelter is a home. We guide our residents into permanent homes and apartments, where they’re far more receptive to social services and support.” In a recent 18-month period, they housed 4,200 homeless people.

Martha Templeton, manager of Malibu’s Artifac Tree thrift shop, spoke about the kinds of services she provides the homeless in Malibu, which she pays for using the store’s net proceeds.

“With receipts, we’ll buy a new battery, pay bills, fix a flat tire, provide diapers, find apartments, help pay first and last month security deposits for apartments, pay parking tickets and reimburse prescriptions,” she said. “We’re like a little Band-Aid.”

Templeton also offers free shoes and jackets to the homeless from the racks of the Artifac Tree and sometimes refers them to Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica for services. She emphasized that she does not give out food. 

The only food for the homeless in Malibu is free dinner at the Malibu United Methodist Church on Wednesday nights and free dinner at the Malibu Presbyterian Church on Thursday nights. 

Colvard’s advice to the Malibu group on what to do next include teaming up with a Westside shelter, meeting additional homeless service providers, contacting the recently-formed homeless task force in Pacific Palisades, looking at untapped resources within the community and seeing if any local landlords would be willing to offer a unit in exchange for a government housing subsidy. 

Anyone interested in learning more about the group can contact Carol Moss at 310.456.3591 or greenlotus@earthlink.net.