Volunteers fan out to survey Hollywood’s homeless

Before dawn one recent morning, volunteers clutching clipboards and flashlights spotted a pile of blankets on an otherwise deserted stretch of Hollywood pavement.

Jake Puffer, who works at a movie advertising agency, approached and knelt down.

“Good morning,” he said.

It took a bit of prodding, but the blankets eventually stirred and a sleepy face peered out. In exchange for a $5 Subway gift card, Ruben Montoya spent the next 20 minutes answering questions about his health and housing situation.

A recovering methamphetamine addict, he told Puffer he had been living on the streets with his girlfriend since completing parole at a sober living home about a month ago. He suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and diabetes. And it is the third time he has been homeless.

“When it rains, that’s the worst time to be out here,” said Montoya, 49.

Advocates for the homeless say the combination of substance abuse and mental and physical illness is frequently deadly on the streets.

So last month, more than 80 volunteers from local businesses, nonprofits, churches and government agencies fanned out over three nights in Hollywood to find people like Montoya before it’s too late. The next step is to get them into permanent housing with the support services they need.

The volunteers are part of a pioneering effort that government and social service officials say is changing the way that chronic homelessness is addressed in Los Angeles County — estimated to have more than 40,000 residents without homes — and other urban areas across the country.

Rather than waiting for the homeless to show up at shelters and soup kitchens, “we are being proactive and going on the streets, finding the people that need help, knowing exactly what kind of help they need . . . and actually tailoring our programs around that,” said Joel Roberts, chief executive of Path Partners, a network of social services and housing agencies.

The Hollywood survey was based on a model developed by Common Ground, a New York nonprofit that substantially reduced homelessness in Times Square. Similar initiatives in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Venice, West Hollywood, Long Beach and Van Nuys have helped secure housing and treatment for more than 200 of the 806 homeless people found to be at risk of premature death.

Tim Dillenbeck, known as the Bubbleman for the whimsical displays he creates with a homemade bubble machine on the Santa Monica Pier, had spent 12 years living out of a van when he was jolted awake one rainy night in January 2008. A man with a clipboard was tapping on the window.

When social workers at St. Joseph Center saw the results of that survey, they were concerned about Dillenbeck’s recent hospital visits, including one for double bypass surgery. Using a housing voucher from the city of Santa Monica, they found him a one-bedroom apartment in a quiet building off Wilshire Boulevard and a doctor to help manage his heart condition.

Dillenbeck, 62, got the keys in August and said he uses his federal cash assistance to pay $369 a month toward his rent.

“It seemed too good to be true,” he said. “I went through life always thinking there was someone who needed [a home] more than I did.”

Programs like the one in Santa Monica dispel “the myth that homeless people do not want to get off the streets,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Yaroslavsky has been a key advocate of the county’s $3.6-million pilot program, known as Project 50 because it initially targeted the 50 most vulnerable homeless people on skid row. Since the program began in late 2007, nearly 80% of the 66 participants so far have stayed in housing, according to figures provided by Yaroslavsky’s office. Six of them died, four were jailed and four quit. The more recent programs report even higher retention rates.

When the Board of Supervisors last year balked at the potential cost of Yaroslavsky’s proposal to expand the program to 500 people, a number of communities pressed on with their own versions. Supporters of the approach argue that the costs are offset by savings because those who obtain permanent housing are less likely to use hospitals, jails and other costly county services.

Although the newer programs lack some of the resources devoted to Project 50, organizers say conducting detailed surveys has helped them better understand their homeless populations and coordinate services for them. In Santa Monica, city officials used their survey to prioritize people for housing vouchers and to help create a strategy they hope will end homelessness, said Maggie Willis, a senior administrative analyst for the city. Santa Monica housed 85 of its most vulnerable homeless people, most of whom remain in the program.

In Long Beach, a survey in July allowed outreach workers to identify elderly and disabled people who qualified for federal cash assistance, said Roberts of Path Partners. Others surveyed turned out to be eligible for housing vouchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs. So far, 52 people have been placed in housing, with local churches donating furniture and government agencies and nonprofits managing their cases and treatment.

The programs are aimed at people who have lived on the streets for at least six months, many of whom suffer from mental and physical issues, including alcohol and drug abuse.

Previously, homeless people were usually required to get sober before they would be offered permanent housing. But experts on the homeless are finding that it is easier to resolve addictions and other issues that land people on the streets when they have a stable place to sleep and keep their medication.

On the streets of Hollywood last month, volunteers counted 323 homeless people and 257 of them agreed to be interviewed. The results were released at a community meeting April 30. More than 40% reported health conditions associated with a high mortality risk, such as HIV or cirrhosis of the liver. The oldest was 80, the youngest 15.

As photographs of the most at-risk were displayed on a screen, representatives of government and private agencies said they could provide subsidized housing for 100 to 120 of them. Others in the room, including local business owners, stood up to pledge money toward relocating them. A total of $62,000 was raised.

Kerry Morrison, who manages two Hollywood business-improvement districts and was the driving force behind the survey, said at least three homeless people have died on neighborhood streets in the last two years.

“When you begin to hear people’s stories, learn their names, find out where they’re from and what led them into this situation, it’s really hard to not get involved in helping,” she said.