Housing Homeless Families

CHristine elks, a mother of three young children, has lived in so many places in the last four years that she must stop to count them on her hand. There was a friend’s couch in North Hollywood. A shelter on skid row so dangerous they spent their days in a park across town. And, perhaps most horribly, there was a “pay shelter” in South Los Angeles: a dark, cramped space the size of a small gym where the Elkses slept, for three years, with 11 other families — nearly 50 people in all — separated by little more than sheets. Colds and other maladies were common inside, as were fights and gunshots outside.

For this, the rent was almost $600 a month, nearly depleting the $800 that Elks got monthly from welfare and a part-time job, plus half their food stamps. Fees included $5 for each item they plugged into the wall. Because she had nothing left over to save, she had little hope of getting out. It was “like a prison,” she said.

Among the tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, few have stories as heartbreaking as the 6,500 dispossessed families that make up the region’s fastest-growing homeless population. They can be hard to spot. Many sleep in their cars, or in a friend’s garage, or in one of the flophouse motels usually found in the city’s poorest areas. One homeless advocate recently found a family sleeping in a backyard chicken coop.

Local officials and advocates do what they can to help such families. But their efforts, like those on behalf of the homeless generally, are hampered by a lack of resources and poor coordination. There is evidence, however, that focusing on homeless families can bring results. Unlike many of the chronically homeless on the streets, families are often homeless purely because of poverty and can be easier to reach.

In Massachusetts, officials are using a combination of technology and intervention as part of a radical transformation in approach. Rather than trying to manage those who become homeless one emergency at a time, Massachusetts is concentrating on prevention programs for at-risk families.

One innovative idea is “geo-coding,” a computer analysis of each family arriving at a shelter. If more families are from certain areas, officials increase services to those neighborhoods, advertising in such places as health clinics and laundromats. Officials also are combing public data such as delinquent utility bills — typically one of the best predictors of eviction — and then offering families help, including modest payments to help with back rent.

For those families that do lose their homes, the state has instituted a “housing-first” model that aims to get them back into a permanent home as quickly as possible. That’s a departure from the usual practice, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, of keeping families in transitional housing — group homes where families live for up to two years while they get back on their feet. The “housing-first” model is not necessarily more expensive; it costs $6,000 to keep a family in temporary housing for three months, the same amount as a year of rental subsidies.

The scale of Los Angeles’ problem is, of course, vastly larger than Massachusetts’. But there are parts of Massachusetts’ holistic, well-managed approach that could be made to work in Los Angeles.

• Monitor and assist families on state welfare. The U.S. government allows states some leeway in how they spend federal welfare dollars, and Massachusetts is using some of its money to help families at risk of losing their homes. Although a 2005 report found 7% of families on state welfare in California are homeless, state law limits prevention assistance to $1,000 over four months — too little to do much good. Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) has sponsored a bill, AB 2961, to increase the limit.

• Expand eviction assistance programs. A third of homeless families were recently evicted, a process that can take months and requires a court hearing. That leaves time to intervene. Massachusetts offers families facing eviction a case manager to help them negotiate with landlords and prevent eviction. The state also is opening “family access centers” to give families a place to reach out for help on their own.

• Adopt a “housing first” model. Although some families are homeless because of domestic violence or substance abuse, most simply can’t afford a roof over their heads. Research shows that the best way to help them is not with expensive shelters but with permanent housing and assistance, such as credit counseling and job training.

• Expand family shelters. To ease overcrowding, Massachusetts is adding short-term shelter beds for those families that have yet to find housing. Los Angeles is desperately in need of new emergency beds. There are only 2,400 beds available to family members, and eight of 10 shelters report regularly turning families away. L.A. also needs more family shelters that allow young boys. As of now, many won’t allow boys over the age of 12, which means families either split up or find somewhere else to sleep.

• Increase school-based assistance. A quarter of homeless children don’t go to school, but the rest are in class. The Los Angeles Unified School District has just three people to help homeless students. This doesn’t make sense. Schools are one of the best and earliest places to identify at-risk families.

• Add more affordable and public housing. As helpful as all these other recommendations could be, nothing would do more to help alleviate homelessness of all kinds throughout the region than expanding the stock of affordable and public housing. The state’s long-term plan to expand affordable housing is expensive, but it also is cost-effective.

As for Elks and her family, for the last three months they have been living in a two-bedroom short-term apartment in Koreatown. (It’s part of a nationally recognized program, called Beyond Shelter, that came up with the “housing-first” model and several other of these recommendations as long as a decade ago; sadly, California has watched while other states try these homegrown reforms.) Elks recently found a part-time job as a cook, and she is saving money and improving her poor credit. The family could be in its own home later this summer.

On a recent visit, her children, now almost adolescents, played safely outside. Things are looking brighter, and Elks says she is optimistic for the first time in years. But why was it so hard for her to arrive at this point? No family should have to wait so long for a chance at a normal life.