In one California community, a different approach to homelessness

Many California communities take a law-enforcement approach to homelessness. But not Pacific Palisades.

Nick Ut/AP
A homeless man rests inside a sleeping bag in downtown Los Angeles, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.

On a sunny morning in the beachfront community of Pacific Palisades, Steven “Boston” Michaud perches confidently on a large dock tie just above the sand. He waves vaguely at the hills above the Pacific Coast Highway, indicating where he sleeps. “It’s up there, but you’ll never see me,” he says, pointing to his own shadow on the ground, “because I’m a shadow and I don’t bother anyone.”

Mr. Michaud is one of about 170 homeless people in Pacific Palisades, an affluent waterfront neighborhood in Los Angeles. Pacific beaches have long been a magnet for the homeless from around the world.

Overall, California experienced the second-largest increase in the number of homeless people (1,786 individuals) among the 50 states this past year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. As their ranks have swelled, some homeless people have edged out of the shadows and have taken up in tidier areas in the Golden State. That, in turn, has attracted the attention of residents – especially when crimes have occurred.

Even Michaud isn’t as invisible as he says he is. A local supermarket took out a restraining order against him.

By and large, California has been dealing with these issues from a legal standpoint. In general, cities in the state have more anti-homeless laws than cities in other states, with an average of almost nine such laws in each of 58 Golden State cities, according to a report by the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the University of California’s Berkeley School of Law.

But some communities in the state think that too much emphasis has been put on law enforcement to deal with homelessness – and not enough on other approaches that account for the needs of homeless people and try to address the root causes of the problem. These places are thus coming up with a new generation of creative ways to deal with the persistent problem of homelessness. Pacific Palisades, which is trying out a private, philanthropic approach, is one of these communities.

“More and more communities are seeing in general that to actually solve this problem, which is what people want, it takes a lot more work," says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington. But he notes that the right programs need to be established. "It takes some leadership at a community level to make sure the right resources are in place ... and that is what appears to be happening."

Consider the following ventures in California:

  • Sonoma County has taken out a $75,000 contract to find a suitable site for a “tiny house village” – a place for homeless people to live that capitalizes on the micro-housing trend. The plan is modeled on such a village in Eugene, Ore., with the smallest homes costing roughly $400 each to build. Humboldt County is also considering building a village.
  • Stanton, a municipality in southern California, did a “180-degree change” in how it approached homelessness, to quote from the Voice of OC paper. The city formed a partnership with the nearby Illumination Foundation, which resulted in the creation of the Stanton Multi-Service Center, offering financial counseling, mental health services, emergency care, and more. After the center launched, Stanton’s homeless population decreased by about a third.
  • And in Palisades, residents created a task force and came up with the initiative now under way: a three-year, $500,000 private fund to enable the community to bring in services for its homeless.

As an L.A. neighborhood that cannot raise taxes by itself, Palisades needed to find an alternative if it wanted to bring comprehensive services down to the local level, explains task force member Doug McCormick, who chairs the task force’s Best Practices Committee.

“In a lot of ways, we are thinking we can be a role model for other places that cannot raise taxes themselves,” he says.

Donors on board

Scheduled to launch in January with two full-time workers devoted to assessing needs and steering tailored services, the effort has already raised its first-year budget of $125,000 from institutional and individual donors, including the American Legion and a local church.

The plan is to partner with Ocean Park Community Center, a full-service social-services agency in nearby Santa Monica, to deliver the services as a package.

The group initially considered deploying its own volunteers, but members quickly realized this approach would not be adequate. “We discovered that a lot of groups silo services, such as substance abuse or mental illness, but very few actually do everything,” Mr. McCormick says. “That’s what we know is needed.”

Private philanthropy in support of community needs is not new, says Mr. Berg of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But what is new and less common in dealing with homelessness, he says, “is the organized approach to philanthropy at the local level.”

While she applauds the ambition of the effort, Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, has concerns about the implications of a privatization approach. “The government’s role is to provide for public needs in critical times,” she says, adding, “This just serves as yet another example of the government stepping away from that role.”

Beyond that, there is the question of who can afford to duplicate the Palisades approach. Raising enough money to hire social services staff is beyond the reach of many communities, says Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who specializes in housing policies. “So it is unlikely that Pacific Palisades is going to start a big trend, but a well-intentioned program could be effective locally, like many other community-based initiatives.”

Sandals on the sand

Before the project officially launches next year, members of the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness already have what member Patrick Hart calls a “sandals on the sand” approach. Many days, he heads out to the beach to assess the movements and needs of the local homeless. The issue is personal for Mr. Hart, who says he and his wife were burned out of their canyon home in 2006 when a drug deal between two homeless men in an encampment beneath their home went bad.

“One of the guys kicked a campfire, and it lit the brush on fire,” he says.

He approaches his rounds methodically, checking in with familiar faces such as Anita Carraway on a daily basis. She regularly sits on a bus stop bench below the beachfront condo where Hart now lives. She has been on the street for seven years and says it was by choice. “I worked at the Salvation Army, and then I had a problem,” she says, so she went out on the streets. She says she is working on a book about homelessness.

Carraway says that when she helped at the Salvation Army, preparing food for the homeless, she did not understand how complicated the challenges were. “What we were doing was really just a Band-Aid,” she says. She knows about the program Palisades is rolling out and says it will face the same problems.

“You can’t just get these people to come in because they like the life they lead out here, with the drugs and the alcohol and no rules,” she says, but adds, “There will be some few who will want to change and the program will be good for them, but you can’t just get people to change their habits until something really bad happens to them.”

Task force members say they have their eyes wide open about these challenges.

“This is not a sprint, this is a long-term program,” says Maryam Zar, chair of the task force. “It will take years to transition some of these people out of homelessness,” she says.

For his part, Michaud scoffs at the notion that he needs services or any help at all. He dismisses what he calls the hypocrisy of many in the community, noting that many of them walk their dogs illegally on the beach in the morning hours before police arrive. “They’re just the poodle people,” he says. “What do they know anyway?”

But services are just the beginning of a lengthy relationship with those in need, says task force member McCormick: “We are here for the long term.”

[Editor's note: The original version of this story contained an example that mentioned San Diego but did not state that the Safe Parking Program is privately funded.]

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