We need to plan for people.

Not homeless people. Just people. When we talk about “homeless people” or “the homeless,” we put the condition ahead of the person. And we make the condition finite because the numbers we use are from one night of counting, not projecting future need.

I have staffed planning to end homelessness efforts, tracked housing and homeless policy, and witnessed, if not participated in, numerous initiatives to address homelessness.  In the last fifteen years I have seen a particularly aggressive approach from government and foundations that insists we can end homelessness if we just implement the right systems and methods. Yet for all the evidence to back up the merits of these approaches, we continue to see an increase in homelessness.  Why?

Why does homelessness persist?

We are certainly having an impact in terms of getting people off the streets, and I have no doubt the quality of services available to homeless people is better than it has ever been. But the numbers of homeless people continue to grow. I don’t think that talking about this as a homeless crisis we can end will ultimately work to eradicate it because homelessness is not a static problem. For every person we counted last January, how many more are we seeing now?  It certainly does not help to act as if we have no other information about how the population in our communities is growing and changing and what their needs will be in a year, five years, or fifty years.  For example, Purposeful Aging LA projects the older adult population in the Los Angeles region will double between 2010 and 2030, from 1.1 million to 2.2 million people.

There is an enduring truth we need to acknowledge. People experience challenges. They lose their jobs and struggle with addiction. They are just getting started with a job that pays a low wage and are burdened with college loans.  They are old and have health crises. They are young and have mental health issues. Some crises are temporary, others are completely life-altering.

Regardless of their circumstances, people need a place to live.  They should not be defined by their lack of housing.  But because we are so earnestly trying to reduce and end homelessness, everything we do to help describes them as a “homeless person.”  Also, with limited resources, comes a limiting definition of homelessness that may help the challenge seem more manageable, but does us no favors if we want to solve the problem our communities truly face.

Right now, our highly respected colleagues at A Community of Friends are fighting to build critically needed supportive housing in Boyle Heights. Prospective neighbors are fighting the project because they do not want to live next to “homeless people.”

Aren’t these our people?

But who, really, will live in that housing?  That is housing built for people who live in that community, who were likely living in housing in that community before they became homeless.  The people who will live in those new apartments will be someone’s brother, uncle, daughter, or mother. We have to remember this always.  There is no community in Los Angeles County that can say they do not have residents with a mental illness or disability.  Some may have the resources to stay off the streets, but for many, disability puts them at a high risk of homelessness.

With new money coming in for homeless services and housing, we face two challenges in Los Angeles City and County: 1) finding sites where a project can move forward, and 2) ensuring that the program is integrated into the neighborhood. As we have seen, when that program is about the “homeless people” and not our neighbors in need, we risk creating new ghettos that continue to isolate people who just want to get on with their lives.  To be sure, just acknowledging that people have needs will not be enough, but it is where we need to begin.

Act Today

There are three things you can do today to help:

  1. Complete a survey. Last week, we had an 80 year old woman, who is living in our shelter, complete our financial literacy class. Apart from the fact that I love her spirit and willingness to learn, she is still an 80 year old woman who doesn’t have a home! Because we are not considering the needs of our population as a whole – planning for people in general – we are not recognizing the additional challenge we will have with ensuring there is enough housing for aging baby boomers.  You can help to improve planning for our region’s growing aging population by taking a survey of the Purposeful Aging Los Angeles Project.  Click on this page – there are links to the survey website which offers choices in ten languages.  Please share it!
  2. Contact your LA City Councilmember or Council President Herb Wesson.  Let them know you support A Community of Friends Lorena Plaza housing development in Boyle Heights.  For the directory, click here.
  3. Make a donation to Ascencia by clicking here Become a monthly donor and help us lay a solid financial foundation for the future.