Ascencia is pleased to operate the Highland Park Winter Shelter Program at All Saints Episcopal Church again this year. We are partnering with Recycled Resources, which is managing the volunteers for that program. Many thanks to L. A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo for securing additional funding to make the Highland Park Winter Shelter possible! If you would like to volunteer to cook a meal for 35 residents in Highland Park, you can sign up here.
This year, we regret that we will not be operating a winter shelter program in Glendale, but there was neither funding nor a site available to make the program work.
For those of you catching up, last year, with dire warnings of an El Nino event, we agreed to operate a winter shelter program. We demonstrated we can do it, mobilizing staff and resources in a little more than a month to shelter 80, and then 100, and then 130 people per night in Glendale and a smaller program in Highland Park. We served more than 600 people for the season.
This year, with a milder forecast, there are not as many funding resources, and there is the problem of locating a viable site. We are continuing to serve our chronically homeless clients with a goal of moving them to housing and we refer them to the other winter shelter sites in Pacoima and Sylmar.
In the absence of operating a program, it is time to reflect on the merits of the winter shelter program, and whether it is worth the resources it consumes.
What the winter shelter does is keep people from dying on the streets. That is its primary purpose. It provides a consistent place for people to sleep during the winter that not only keeps them safe, but it also gives us a better chance of finding them so we can work on moving them to permanent housing. The winter shelter in Glendale is also where local volunteers can provide hot meals and help us reconnect our clients to possibilities beyond the streets. Those are powerful and definite positives.
But there are some weighty negatives that cannot be dismissed:
• Siting. It is very challenging to find a site that will meet the criteria of a winter shelter program (number of toilets, showers, secure location, not adjacent to residential areas), and that an owner would be willing to rent for less than a year.
• First come, first serve rule. A person using the winter shelter is not guaranteed a bed night after night. Clients must line up every night to ensure getting a bed. This creates an incentive for winter shelter users to not go too far away from the site. As a result, we have to dedicate staff time to monitor the area, or fights will break out in the line-ups. This also puts working guests at a disadvantage, because they cannot be sure that they can get a spot. It is tremendously stressful for people using the program as they are not assured a bed if they are late to the site. It is also stressful for staff who have to turn people away. For the businesses and residents bordering the program, this rule results in many people loitering in their neighborhood.
• Reimbursement rates are too low for smaller scale programs. The regional winter shelter program is administered by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which sets a reimbursement rate of $20/person/night for programs operating in armories, and $23/person/night for sites that pay rent. What that means is for a program serving 80 people over a 91-day contract, we will have $21,840 in rental costs. But to serve 80 people humanely, we need about 10,000 square feet. In Glendale, that would cost anywhere from $35,000 or more for the season, well above LAHSA’s reimbursement rate. In a commercial rental market as tight as Glendale’s and the surrounding area, the greatest challenge has been finding a suitable location with a landlord willing to rent at a rate we could pay. The reimbursement rate favors mass-scale programs that have a greater negative impact on the surrounding areas and less personalized attention to people who have significant needs.
• Reimbursement is for night-time operations only. One of the biggest challenges for operating a winter shelter program is having sufficient daytime activities so that the shelter guests are not hanging around the neighborhood, waiting to get in line.
• Temporary staffing. Because of the low reimbursement rates, hourly wages are low, and these are temporary jobs. Staff turnover and personnel issues are typical for a larger winter shelter program. For a smaller program, there are fewer problems. In our Highland Park program, which served 35 people each night, we had no staff turnover in the 2015-16 season. For the large-scale program, we saw multiple staff departures before the season was over.
• Mass shelter risks. Staffing the program is also challenging because the clientele is challenging. Winter Shelter is a low-demand program. This means that to gain entry into the program, shelter users need only subject themselves to a weapons and contraband check. So, we have a program staffed by temporary workers who tend to have limited work experience with this population, supervising a large group of people with untreated mental illness, possible active addiction and who have not been subjected to a background check. Sheltering well more than 100 people, many of whom will exhibit agitation in a large single space, at a ratio of 20 to a staff person, puts our staff and guests alike at risk. For this reason, trauma survivors will avoid a big shelter program because they will not feel safe.
• Perpetuating chronic homelessness. For some, winter shelter has facilitated their ability to stay chronically homeless. They survive the harshest season so they can go back to living outdoors for the remainder of the year. Perhaps the most disheartening thing for staff is to hear people say at the end of the program is, “See you next year!”
What is the responsible thing to do?
A more humane and useful approach would be to create year-round, smaller scale programs that can invest the time and resources necessary to move chronically homeless people off the streets, and help prevent future chronic homelessness. A year-round program means:
• Hiring employees on a permanent basis, creating a more stable team that effectively serve clients who have very complicated needs.
• Having consistent operations that support the goal of creating trust with a population that has high rates of victimization, trauma, and abuse.
• Year-round planning to engage volunteers and programs that work to integrate clients into the broader community, rather than a mad dash to search for a location every year.
• Supporting program participants as they transition to permanent housing with ongoing socialization and service support
• Providing an essential bridge for people lacking a credit history or behavioral capacity to manage tenant responsibilities.
Over the years, people living in urban areas have been subjected to violent attacks, including rape and assault, and even being lit on fire. These tragedies have great moral costs as well as financial costs that are too rarely counted. When we say we cannot afford to do something differently so that fewer people are living on the streets throughout the year, what are we really saying?
Only with the attention that a smaller scale program can provide, can we be assured of the kind of enduring impact we all want.
This requires both funding and geographically diverse places to site programs. The good news is that the City and County of Los Angeles have renewed their efforts to address homelessness and are already implementing plans to move forward. The bad news is that they continue to employ funding methods that may not get them the desired results. More on that in my next post.
Natalie Komuro, Executive Director