"What am I going to do with an apartment?"
Peter Starks, dressed in a gray business suit, offers a look of incredulity, as if the very notion of giving housing to someone like him, a drug user for 40 of his 67 years, is crazy. He is facing a roomful of people who nod knowingly. Most of them are from public, nonprofit or faith-based agencies that help former prison inmates reenter society. They are here for the January general meeting of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, where they are discussing joint plans developed by Los Angeles County and the city of L.A. to address homelessness.
LARRP leaders say that one of every five people released from incarceration go directly to the street, or first try to reunite with family but later become homeless because their condition and their experience make them unready for life at home.
More than a few of the agency reps were previously where Starks once was — discharged from the military, addicted, mentally ill, in and out of prison and jail, and homeless. And many are where he is now — back on their feet and providing service to others dealing with reentry.
"What am I going to do with an apartment?" Starks repeats. "You got to teach me how to live. Teach me how to live."
One of the points of contention among policymakers and service providers is the degree to which chronically homeless people resist housing and services. A common assertion is that people like Starks just won't accept housing, even if it were to be offered without strings. His comment about the apartments that well-meaning agencies kept trying to give him might be presented as evidence by people who hold that view.
Starks describes the experience of a typical inmate leaving jail or prison and confronting a mound of paperwork. Fill this out and go here for treatment. Fill that out and go there for housing.
"Before you get there you've got skid row, where all your healing needs are met," Starks says. "The dope man is going to get paid. So getting to you people — it's not going to happen."
Proponents of "housing first" programs like Project 50, a pilot begun in 2008 by then-County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, reject the notion that chronically homeless people are housing resistant or service resistant. They argue that people simply must be treated as the individuals they are, each with different needs.
Starks may have had little use for an apartment, living instead for eight years on the stage at MacArthur Park and 13 on the sidewalk in front of a drop-in center. But ultimately he was housed — by Amistad de Los Angeles, a residential rehab project of the Amity Foundation. There, he said, he learned to deal not just with drugs and illness, but with underlying issues that exacerbated those problems, like resentment, anger and trauma stemming from his time in combat in Vietnam.
For him, homelessness was merely one symptom of the central challenge, which is reentry: a return to society after a long period of incarceration, with the other symptoms, like substance abuse and emotional trauma, still intact.
Los Angeles County is simultaneously gearing up programs to deal with reentry — through a new Office of Diversion and Reentry within the Department of Health Services — and with homelessness. Success of each may depend on how complementary, rather than subservient, they are to each other. The county can't seriously address homelessness without intervening in the flow of former inmates from jails and prisons to the streets. It must do more than ensure that housing and services are ready and waiting. As Starks notes, "If you don't pick me up at the gate, I'm not coming."
And the county can't seriously address reentry of people returning to freedom after incarceration without acknowledging that such people represent a major slice of the homeless population and have particular needs that go beyond an apartment, or even an apartment with access to drug and mental health treatment.
Are county workers really going to meet every freed inmate at the Twin Towers jail in downtown Los Angeles at 1 a.m., or at 34 prisons and reception centers across the state, to be sure that thousands of people each month don't try to get their healing needs met on skid row, and don't spend all their gate money on the dope man?
Someone has to. Perhaps it's more likely that the someone will be people like Starks, working with experienced groups like Amity. In fact, higher rates of success are likely if people are met while they are still incarcerated and begin working on their reentry long before the gates open for them. One part of the county's job may be simply to match people as they enter jail with the people like Starks and the groups like Amity that they will need upon their release.
Of course, there will also be people coming out of jail or off the streets who need apartments, and it's also the county's job to find them for people who need them.