They call him the “Godfather.”
For 14 years, John Watkins held supreme authority over the homeless encampments deep in the Hollywood hills. So it was with some trepidation that volunteers armed with clipboards picked their way up a rugged trail to his mountain hideaway one morning, hoping he would answer questions about his health and housing situation.
Their goal: to identify and find homes for the 20 people at greatest risk of early death if left on the streets of Hollywood.
Organizers of the grass-roots effort had no money lined up to help those they interviewed. But they hoped that by putting names and faces to some of the most vulnerable residents, they could get the community to rally to help. A year later, the early results are promising. Thirty-seven chronically homeless people are in apartments; 34 others are expected to be housed within weeks, and more than $800,000 has been raised to sustain the effort.
“When you pull the veil of anonymity away and reveal who these human beings are, resources appear,” said Kerry Morrison, who heads two local business-improvement districts and has been the driving force behind the campaign.
At a time when governments are stretched, homeless advocates say the Hollywood effort exemplifies what communities can achieve when they pool resources and prioritize those in greatest need. Similar initiatives in Santa Monica, Venice, West Hollywood, Glendale, Van Nuys, Long Beach and downtown’s skid row have put permanent roofs over the heads of more than 600 of Los Angeles County’s most hard-core homeless, according to figures collected by the New York-based nonprofit Common Ground.
The chronically homeless — those who have been on the streets a year or longer and suffer from at least one disabling condition — represent just a quarter of the estimated 48,000 county residents who are homeless on any given day. But they account for about three-quarters of homelessness-related public spending. By getting the costliest street dwellers housed, officials hope to free up resources for other homeless people.
Hollywood’s project was forged out of a rancorous backlash to a four-story, 70-unit “campus of hope” for low-income and homeless people being built just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Residents fought the project for years, fearing it would import skid row headaches to Hollywood. “Several of us realized that we have a lot of educating to do,” Morrison said, including documenting Hollywood’s own homelessness problem.
Representatives of Hollywood businesses, social service groups, churches and local government began meeting three years ago and set an ambitious objective: ending homelessness in the area by 2018. Inspiration for the campaign came from Project 50, a $3.6-million Los Angeles County pilot program that initially targeted skid row’s 50 most at-risk street dwellers.
That population faces serious mental, physical and substance abuse issues. Older programs would have required them to get treated before being provided permanent homes. But project advocates say it is unrealistic to expect people to show up to appointments when they don’t have a stable place to live. So Project 50 participants were immediately housed and given access to an array of social and therapeutic services. Morrison was told that the county could not afford to replicate Project 50 in Hollywood. But she and other volunteers pressed ahead to identify the homeless and rank them according to vulnerability. They used a model developed by Common Ground, which is leading an effort to house 100,000 homeless people nationwide.
“There are those who say it really is almost irresponsible to do a homeless registry when you don’t have housing lined up to help the people,” Morrison said. “But we just felt as though if we didn’t move forward we’d be out there waiting for years.”
The effort grew to include dozens of volunteers who fanned out over three days to survey every homeless person they could find in the hills, streets, alleys and parking lots.
The Godfather proved a disarming host. Dressed in military fatigues, he offered Morrison a chair and politely answered her questions.
A 59-year-old Army veteran, he made a living for a time in construction but suffered debilitating injuries, including a broken back that left him on welfare. He said he became homeless when his apartment was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He tried living in a condemned building but said police harassed him for squatting. So he retreated to the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, where he built his “hooch” out of tarps, cables, poles and wooden pallets. “It was my safe haven,” he said.
In the summer, he could hear concerts. When the bowl closed, he would collect bags of discarded hot dogs and pretzels to share with a couple dozen people camping in the hills, many of them in their teens and 20s.
“The rule was, bring your own beer. Don’t expect Godfather to be taking care of you,” he said. “But if you need clothes or food, come on by.”
The survey results were presented at a community meeting in April last year. As photographs of the most at-risk were displayed on a screen, local business owners and others pledged money toward relocating them. A $45,000 fund was created.
Since then, nearly $100,000 in grant money has been raised to staff the effort. The nonprofit Step Up on Second has pledged to develop 200 units of permanent housing with on-site services for homeless people with mental illnesses. And Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is contributing $700,000 from a discretionary fund for outreach and support services.
One key to moving people like Watkins into permanent housing has been marshalling disconnected resources, Morrison said. “No more silos.”
A 20-member team, including members of homeless service groups, the county Department of Mental Health, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the police and business improvement district security, has been meeting every two weeks to get all 413 people surveyed to date into housing, starting with the 212 listed as vulnerable. Using information from the registry, they have identified people who are eligible for disability assistance, veterans benefits and housing vouchers, then helped them through the tortuous process of applying for aid and finding affordable housing.
For some, help came too late. At least four women and three men on the registry have died, said Rudy Salinas, outreach director for the nonprofit service group People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). Others could not be found.
It took months to persuade the Godfather, No. 50 on the list because of his injuries, drinking and years of homelessness, to leave the hills. PATH members suggested that he try their shelter, but he didn’t want to put his dog, Capone, in a kennel. This fall, sheriff’s deputies dismantled the hillside encampments, citing complaints from neighbors. Forced to take up residence in a parking lot, Watkins announced that he was ready to “come in from the cold.”
In February, he and a buddy moved into an apartment subsidized by PATH. Watkins’ book and coin collections now are displayed on the living room shelves. From the sofa, where Capone curls up beside him, Watkins can see the Griffith Observatory.
“We like it here,” he said. “We’re planning on staying here a long time.”