It’s time for common sense actions and policies to combat homelessness in Long Beach.
Although the 2019 homeless count tallied only 1,894 people or 0.4% of the population experiencing homelessness in Long Beach, the problem seems much bigger. Homelessness is a complex issue.
However, homelessness is not cancer; it is not space travel; it is not mosquito-borne diseases. Homelessness is a man-made problem and can be addressed by practical, man-made solutions.
First and foremost, priority No. 1 should be to get people off the streets and into homes. These “homes” should include a variety of arrangements — emergency shelters, transitional group homes, shared homes, dormitories and individual apartments. Once people are sheltered, then case management would ramp up and comprehensive strategic plans would be developed for non-disabled adults.
I have listened to hundreds of people tell me stories of how, where and when they became homeless. Each story is unique. But they all end the same way — “I didn’t have enough money to pay rent.”
Some began their lives raised in middle-class families. However, many more people have been poor all their lives and have never experienced stability, even as young children. There are generations of families in Long Beach who have been in and out of homelessness. Their normal is not knowing where they will sleep one night to the next. Some people were or are currently working and still have never had the security that comes with a good-paying job.
Stress and trauma from living unsheltered often compromise the mental and physical health of people experiencing homelessness. And, people turn to alcohol/drugs as coping mechanisms no matter their socio-economic situation. If you were spending nights and days completely unsheltered, with nowhere to safely rest, shower or go to the bathroom, how healthy and hopeful would you feel?
There are millions of people in the U.S. who have serious mental illness and/or drug addictions who will never experience homelessness because they have access to money and support. For the most part, neither mental illness nor substance addiction causes homelessness. Lack of money causes homelessness.
Currently, it costs $70 to $100 per night per motel room and $400,000 to $500,000+ per unit for new construction of low-income apartments in Long Beach. Shared homes would be a more cost-effective option. Existing large homes may be purchased for a little more than $500,000 and equipped to quickly house six or more people. As an added benefit, these homes have common kitchens and living areas that promote supportive communities for its occupants. Additional “homes” can quickly and economically be created by re-purposing abandoned retail and commercial buildings.
On any given day, there are hundreds of apartments for rent in Long Beach. We should replicate L.A. County’s “Pilot Program” where the County signs the lease on an apartment and places two to four people who are experiencing homelessness there. The County automatically deducts peoples’ rents from their benefits accounts every month.
Once people are housed, case managers who are skilled problem solvers would help those who are ready to create personal strategic plans. These individualized plans would address career opportunities, education/training, health and wellness, financial literacy, personal accountability and other life skills. A good job that allows you to support yourself and your family is something we all want and should be able to achieve with perseverance and hard work.
Instead of spending government funds on programs that have underperformed, we should invest in shelter/housing, effective wellness programs, career training and employment opportunities that will lead to higher wage jobs, and encourage employers to pay fair and reasonable wages. A good paying job would allow a person experiencing homelessness to get back on his/her feet, meet their basic needs, stabilize their lives and become less reliant on government assistance.
Having generations of families living in and out of homelessness is a sign of failure on so many levels. All hands on deck are needed to break the cycle of hopelessness. If we all assume some ownership of this problem and commit to solving a piece of it, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.
I encourage you to spend time getting to know someone who is experiencing homelessness. You may be pleasantly surprised by your experience. As a result, you may consider teaching marketable skills, tutoring someone who is back in school, offering someone a job, passing on a used car, offering reasonable rental property, or doing something else that may help someone gain confidence to move his/her life forward.
Julie Lie is executive director of Urban Community Outreach in downtown Long Beach.