Burbank officials last year missed a game-changing opportunity to improve the lives of the city's most vulnerable residents, but fortunately opportunity sometimes knocks twice.
In order to better understand our homeless population and how to address their needs most effectively, the city should partner with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority in conducting a citywide homeless census.
In addition to its annual countywide count, the homeless authority offers the opportunity — and at no cost other than volunteers' time — to opt in for a specific localized survey.
Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach already do their own counts, and Monrovia, Hermosa Beach, West Hollywood, San Dimas and a dozen other places, but not Burbank, took advantage of the offer in 2009.
Identifying the number and characteristics of our homeless will help not only determine what sorts of programs would do the most good, but also potentially open doors to existing federal, state and county resources already making a difference in other places.
Over the past several years, the city has made laudable progress in extending help to local homeless people and those at risk of joining their ranks — expanding transitional housing, helping to fund new outreach efforts and continuing support for the expanded Burbank Temporary Aid Center.
During a brief tour of the center Monday, I saw numerous people — some looking pretty down on their luck, but many others appearing no different from the average passersby — finding aid in the form of groceries, showers, utility payment assistance and counseling about other available (or not so available) resources.
I also learned that many of them are new to the center.
Since Executive Director Barbara Howell's arrival in 2005, she said, the economic downturn and other social realities have increased the center's client list from about 125 homeless and some 3,000 struggling to avoid homelessness to more than 400 homeless and 7,000 at-risk. The majority of those at risk are families, "and about half of new clients never had to ask for help anywhere before," she said.
As is the case in Pasadena and many other cities, most of the Burbank Temporary Aid Center's homeless clients are "homegrown homeless" who were already living and working here before falling on hard times, Howell said.
The center's numbers certainly make a compelling case for supporting its mission, but they don't tell the whole story of homelessness in Burbank the way an official homeless census would.
Unlike most of the temporarily needy clients, the Burbank Temporary Aid Center is designed to best serve those who experience perpetual, or chronic, homelessness, often suffering from mental disabilities and laying low when it comes to shelters and services.
Councilman Dave Golonski, Burbank's elected official most active on the homelessness issue, told me last week that expanding the city's response to the chronically homeless is an emerging priority.
However, "that's a tough question in difficult budget times because it requires a comprehensive approach to make a significant difference," Golonski said.
He has a point. I don't think anyone would argue for helping the chronically homeless by shifting resources away from families and others whose needs are more temporary. If anything, we should increase transitional housing opportunities in Burbank in order to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place, especially when kids are involved.
Yet there is also a dire need to extend all the kind of comprehensive case management services that City Hall helps fund at the center, but for only 20 hours a week.
If officials follow through this time on performing a local homeless census, we'll have the data we need to make the case for new resources to help us do both.
JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.