Housing First Push

Lots of folks are pushing the Housing First model as a solution to homelessness. Recently, an LA County Supervisor encouraged the business community to move all of their resources into Housing First and away from other, as one spokesman described, “archaic” models.

I fully support Housing First as a fabulous option, and indeed support the County’s Project 50 program, and even the planned Project 500 directed at placing the most chronic, physically and mentally challenged homeless people in our city into permanent supportive housing.

However, I need to share that the Housing First model is part of the solution to homelessness and that a continuum of housing is the answer to homelessness.

Let me start by explaining what we do at Union Rescue Mission. Some folks describe us as simply a shelter. We are much more than a shelter. We are the oldest rescue mission in Los Angeles—one of the largest, if not the largest rescue mission in the U.S. We are the only mission in downtown Los Angeles that houses single men, single women, women with children, two parent families with children, and single dads with children. In addition, we are one of the few in the County that accepts teenage children.

We provide meals and shelter to perhaps more people than any rescue mission in the U.S. Many days we provide nearly 3,500 meals! Many of those who eat at Union Rescue Mission live in the Housing First-permanent supportive housing that surrounds us on Skid Row. We provide emergency shelter and meals to 260 single men each night. We provide emergency shelter and meals to 200 single women each night. During the rainy winter months from December 1st to March 15th, we double our number of emergency guests through a partnership with EIMAGO, our public benefits charity, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

We also provide emergency shelter and meals to 35 single moms with 60 children each night. During the winter months this last year we saw, through our partnership, 7 times the number of homeless families coming to our winter shelter sites compared to the year prior. These are folks that would more than likely be on the streets each night, if not for Union Rescue Mission.

I would be the first to agree that shelter and meals alone are not the solution to homelessness. Shelter alone would mean the mere warehousing of precious human beings made in the image of God. However, at their worst these shelter beds provide a roof overhead and a waiting area for entrance into permanent supportive housing opportunities. At their best they provide a staging point for an opportunity for entrance into a long term program that could change their life.

When it comes to life transforming long-term program opportunities, Union Rescue Mission again leads the way among Los Angeles providers and in rescue missions throughout the U.S. We have 170 single men in an intense 1 year training program. These men attend hundreds of programming hours in classes on relationships, overcoming addictions, anger management, Bible study; hours in our Learning Center; in physical education; in work therapy and volunteering throughout the Mission. Then they proudly graduate in a cap and gown after successfully completing their year commitment to the program. If you doubt the transforming power of this program, please attend our upcoming Men’s Graduation on Sunday, June 28th, at 3 P.M., in our URM Chapel.

After graduation, our men have the option to move into a 6-12 month transition phase for securing a job and saving money as they prepare to move out on their own. We have 60 men in this transition phase. This totals over 200 men in our programs. We have 16 single women in our 6 month, life transforming program as well. This includes many of the classes mentioned above, but focused on women’s issues.

This Fall, when the economic downturn hit hard we launched Project Restart, a mini-program of sorts, to house and assist 2 parent families and single dads with children who are new to homelessness. The goal is to launch them quickly back into employment and housing. We currently have 15 families and 34 children in this program on our 5th floor.

We also have 30 moms and 60 children at our long-term, transitional housing program at Hope Gardens Family Center. This facility provides a safe environment for single moms and their children. Moms have the opportunity to save money while they further their education and career skills in order to gain employment and provide a home for their children. Hope Gardens also provides permanent supportive housing to 22 senior ladies. These precious elderly women have finally found a permanent home, bringing their cycle of homelessness to an end.

I share all of these statistics to say, URM is much more than a shelter! URM is a continuum of housing within the much needed continuum of care.

The Housing First model—permanent supportive, forever subsidized care—is certainly the best model for people who are physically and mentally challenged; for those who will likely never recover from the devastating effects of homelessness. These precious folks make up about 10 to 20 % of people experiencing homelessness. This percentage also includes families with parents who are debilitated, or families that, for whatever reason, decide to pass up on a life-changing opportunity like Hope Gardens Family Center. They are those that choose instead to move to permanent supportive housing, or, what I would describe as, “Survival and Subsidy.”

The next 60%, the largest portion of people experiencing homelessness, are struggling with a mountain of issues. But those issues may very well be temporary, or at least not insurmountable. This is where life-transforming programs take the stage. Long-term, intensive programs at places like Union Rescue Mission, Los Angeles Mission, Weingart Center, Midnight Mission, and even our own Hope Gardens Family Center, provide folks an opportunity to work hard and a chance to turn their life around.

The final 20% are folks like our first-time homeless families in our Project Restart program. They have, through a series of misfortunes, stumbled into homelessness. They possess job skills and resources to quickly get back on their feet, get back into the job market and into the normal housing market. Housing First’s permanent supportive-permanently subsidized housing would not only be inappropriate for them, but it would in the end be debilitating to their genuine well being.

I would argue that there is a need for this entire continuum of housing as a solution to homelessness. I also recognize that we certainly need to make the shelter experience as short, as welcoming and dignity affirming as we can, given the limited resources.

Affordable housing is a part of the continuum of housing that I have not mentioned, and it is a vital part of the continuum that must be enhanced so that folks in the 80% final two categories I discussed will have a housing option after completing their life transforming program, or after completing a program similar to our Project Restart.

Thanks for listening and please weigh in with your comments!
Andy B.