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LA’s homelessness outreach workers are ‘salespeople without a product’

LA’s homelessness outreach workers are ‘salespeople without a product’

Endless bureaucracy and low housing inventories leave case workers, who often earn so little that they themselves are in danger of being unhoused, with nothing to offer those they’re trying to help.

Joan Howard was 46 years old when she became homeless. At first she slept on the couch in her mother’s room while caring for her mother full-time at a dementia program. Then Howard herself was diagnosed with cancer and forced to redirect the money she’d been using for her mother’s treatment to pay for chemotherapy. 

Soon Howard, her mother, and three dogs were living in Howard’s car, which they parked in a Ralph’s parking lot. Despite being steps away from a well-stocked grocery store, they were typically hungry.

After about three months, the store manager knocked on her car door and told Howard to visit “the chicken line.” He was referring to an organization called Food on Foot that serves El Pollo Loco to those in need. Finding her way to the Hollywood address, she stood in line to receive a bucket of chicken. The man serving her smiled, said “Hello,” and asked what was wrong. He was Jay Goldinger, the founder of the nonprofit that had been operating since 1996.

Howard broke down crying and explained her story to Goldinger. She freely admitted financial hardship was a relatively recent experience; she’d long had a trust fund but she’d managed to deplete it — she realized this only when her credit card was canceled in a Saks Fifth Avenue — and in a life when she’d often felt lost, she now felt more lost than ever before.

Goldinger asked to meet her mother.

“This is a remarkably clean car you have here,” Goldinger said as they stood in the Ralph’s parking lot. He then offered to pay a year’s rent on an apartment for her to allow her to get back on her feet.

She asked what the catch was.

“Come back,” he said. “Pay it forward.”

* * *

Now 66, Howard has been keeping her promise for the last 20 years, serving the LA homeless community she was once a part of through Food on Foot and her own donations. But Howard and her longtime dedication to helping LA’s unhoused are not the rule, they’re the exception.

Homeless outreach workers do not form a homogenous group. The profession employs people from various educational backgrounds — from those who have master’s degrees in social work to those who ended their formal educations at high school — and with differing perspectives on the crisis. Some have experienced homelessness themselves; others have watched a loved one suffer. Many have no previous experience with homelessness.

Still, they all work to end one of the most pressing issues in Los Angeles by doing what donations, votes, and prayers cannot: Going out into the community and speaking with people face to face. It is their job to identify and advocate for those who are stepped around on sidewalks and ignored at the entrances of stores. For the majority of the unhoused, who don’t escape this unsafe situation with the help of a friend or family, the help of a caseworker is often the only way to get back on their feet and under a roof.

But with a median pay of just $18 an hour and 50-hour work weeks, burnout is rampant among outreach workers — and compassion can only go so far when the hourly pay is $4 less than the livable wage in LA, putting the workers on the brink of displacement themselves.

Caseworkers also enjoy less than supportive work environments. Many are poorly trained, ill-resourced, and subject to weak oversight that significantly impacts their output and makes for a high turnover rate in the workforce.

“People might have six or seven case managers that help them in the process of a year or two trying to get housing, and that’s disruptive,” said Benjamin Henwood, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

This is because an outreach worker must build trust with a case subject before beginning the intake process to appeal for housing. Disruptions not only disturb this delicate operation, but also contribute to what is often misrepresented as resistance among the homeless to accept help when in fact it’s the unwillingness to begin a lengthy, tedious process that may never come to fruition.

* * *

The housing process begins with the administration of a vulnerability index survey. This assesses the relative risk of an unhoused person’s circumstances through a series of questions and data items such as their age, any health issues, and past trauma.

This is in accordance with the Los Angeles Housing Authority’s (LAHSA) Coordinated Entry System (CES), which aims to support and house the most vulnerable individuals first.

Henwood says this system “aims to take out bias so homeless service providers can’t just scoop up the easiest people to engage and put them in housing.”

In order to send this survey to LAHSA, caseworkers need the person’s proof of income. Even more onerous is the need to collect a form of identification from the individual, a requirement that derails the process before it really starts because many unhoused individuals don’t have ID because it’s been lost, taken from them, or not something they ever had in the first place.

And while this population is able to apply for a temporary “no-fee” ID through California’s McKinney-Vento Act, the applications can take up to 60 days — not including the time the case worker must then take to track down the person, who in the interim may have moved on without providing a way to be contacted.

Once all required materials are delivered to LAHSA, the organization logs and reviews each profile to determine the highest scores and, therefore, the highest priorities for housing. Assignments for permanent supportive or interim housing are allocated or support is given in the form of a housing voucher. Most programs also require the person to secure employment and meet with a social worker on a regular basis. Some mandate drug testing and participation in rehabilitation groups.

* * *

Securing shelter for someone, even if it takes years to do, amounts to a success. Zachary Coil, the director of Westside outreach in the Mental Health Department of The People Concern, says the hardest part of his day is “having to walk away with someone’s primary issue being unsolved.” Whether they are in need of shelter or they are distressed, he says “it’s all virtually impossible to solve in one day.”

On top of that, Coil and others do their work knowing that LAHSA will determine a majority of applicants are ineligible for shelter.

“Our staff in the sector are expected to go out there and see people suffering every day and not have accessible resources for them,” says Celina Alvarez, executive director of Housing Works. “Not at the moment, not within a few days, and in some instances not even in a few months.”

She also grapples with the reality of the selection process and with the administration of the survey which she says “is like a physical exam for triage.”

Alvarez says this leaves her and her team to put the unselected cases in the pipeline for housing. She has to be careful not to promise anyone anything, including “interim housing because of the way the whole system is set up with the Coordinated Entry System.”

This takes a psychological toll on workers, Alvarez acknowledges.

For Coil, administering the survey is also challenging because “once you are on the street, you are by-definition experiencing trauma.” He struggles with the fact that LAHSA determines who has it the worst on the street and whose pain is great enough to deserve support.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that each caseworker attends to many people at a time. Currently overseeing a staff of less than 50 at her organization, Alvarez says the ratio of cases to workers can be as steep as 30:1. Even if a case is approved for support, it doesn’t mean it’s a housing success story. A whole new challenge lies with the case accepting the aid.

Someone might, for instance, opt out of their housing voucher program, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8, if they dislike the units they have to choose from.

“For a one-bedroom apartment in LA, the voucher pays $1,900,” Coil says. “Where are you going to end up looking at? Probably not the area you want.”

For Henwood, the CES fails “the demand side: the reality that homeless people have preferences.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti meets with Angelenos experiencing homelessness, along with their outreach workers. (Photo via the Office of the Mayor)

After participating in a year-long study with the RAND Corporation that followed 26 homeless veterans in LA to observe their experiences living on the streets and attempting to attain housing, Henwood realized more research needs to be conducted on individuals’ choices — location, pet-friendliness, accessibility for those with disabilities. Those are not superficial characteristics; what kind of choice is it really for someone to have to choose between housing and a beloved pet? Additionally, past trauma often plays a role. But caseworkers are human, and they understandably get frustrated.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I find myself thinking, ‘Man, how can you be so picky?’” Coil says.

People might also have preferences on whether they live in a single site permanent supportive housing or on a scattered site. The former defines a building where all the tenants have experienced homelessness and the latter is when an individual is given a voucher with which to find their own apartment.

“That’s why lots of people just won’t access shelter, for good reason,” Coil says. “They don’t like the cramped quarters or they have had some bad experiences…. People crave choices and being able to make some choices when you really have none might make them feel better about themselves.”

* * *

With critiques abounding of LAHSA’s CES, a tension has developed in recent years between the organization and outreach workers.

“It’s LAHSA who’s responsible for the bureaucratic red tape,” Howard says. To her, the organization is doing less than it could to solve the crisis, allowing the burden of overflowing cases to fall on outreach workers.

LAHSA communications coordinator Maggie Turner says these are common misconceptions. “People,” she says, “pin LAHSA as the scapegoat for LA’s homelessness crisis so often it’s not even funny.”

Acting as a liaison between LAHSA and the community, Turner attends meetings and gives presentations on the state of homelessness in the county. As a result, she is often approached by those who work in outreach who wish to voice their complaints. Turner says community members also approach her to express their dissatisfaction with LAHSA for not solving the crisis and for allowing it to get worse and worse.

In 2020, the organization counted 66,436 unhoused individuals in LA County. This number is only an estimate, however, and considered by many to be inaccurate due to the fact that volunteers only tally those visible to them during a three-day count.

Last year’s count was canceled due to the pandemic, so numbers have yet to be updated. Results of the most recent count, conducted in February, are set to be published later this spring.

“We take direction from the city and the county and the state,” Turner says of LAHSA. “We’re like a vessel to distribute funding and we can’t make a lot of the decisions that people are asking for…. We can’t conjure housing out of nothing.”

This leads people to turn to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality which instigates and approves street sweeps. This occurs when city workers clear homeless encampments and sidewalks, usually without supplying them resources or another place to go.

Street sweeps are relatively common but spiked recently with Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium on Feb. 13.

Other recent efforts to dissuade people from setting up camp in certain areas include placing large boulders on sidewalks, which caught national attention in February.

Such are examples of practices that Turner and LAHSA disapprove of.

“The data shows that sweeps don’t help, they make things worse,” she said.

According to Turner, any actions that criminalize homelessness and displace people aggravate the crisis, such as the draconian amendment to section 41.18 of the L.A. Municipal Code known as the “sit-lie” law.

This ordinance, passed unanimously in August of 2021, made it illegal for people to sit, lie down or sleep on streets, sidewalks and entryways to public buildings.

Turner also says the actions of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva are generally detrimental to progress in solving homelessness, as he supports the criminalization of unhoused folks.

“A criminal record makes it harder for them to get housing,” she said.

She said existing data shows that a housing first approach and provisions of services to unhoused people are effective.

“Once someone is placed in housing, their life improves on all fronts,” said Turner.

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There is also a greater cost associated for taxpayers with people being on the streets as opposed to being housed, she said. And in order for people to get into shelter on a more regular basis, LA needs a more balanced housing system.

“Right now, for every homeless person we have about one unit of housing, and that seems balanced,” she says. “But a more balanced system would actually be a 1:5 ratio.”

Examples of cities that have achieved this more balanced system include Houston and Bakersfield.

Turner emphasizes that Houston is the fourth most populated city in the nation, yet manages to house people at a higher rate by converting old apartment buildings into affordable housing and hotels into permanent supportive housing.

She also attributes its success to focusing on three main forms of interventions: prevention, rehousing and housing creation.

“At the end of the day, there is no silver bullet to solve homelessness because there’s so many systemic issues that feed into it … It’s the result of wages not keeping up with inflation, housing prices not being regulated, systemic racism and historic redlining,” said Turner.

Despite LAHSA’s less-than-stellar reputation with caseworks, Turner recognizes that L.A.’s lack of efficiency housing people falls on the shoulders of outreach workers.

“Even LAHSA’s caseworkers are burnt out,” she says. “It’s an imbalanced system, there’s no affordable housing and you’re listening to people’s trauma all day long.”

* * *

Much like LAHSA, outreach workers are targeted by the community, often being told they’re enabling people to remain on the streets.

“Sometimes my team has people in the community walk up to them and give them a piece of their mind about what they feel — and they get cussed out,” said Coil.

And because their organizations are understaffed and running on a low budget, caseworkers can’t turn inward to their organizations for ample support.

“The best we can do is establish an environment… a culture of gentleness, where we know we’ve got each other’s backs,” said Coil.

Without the funding to establish an in-house mental health professional, he said he has regular check-ins to make sure people aren’t “carrying their work home at night.”

“I make sure they’re sleeping,” he said.

Alvarez said the greatest help for caseworkers would be more funding.

“Not having medical benefits or mental health services is like a paramedic not having the tools they need,” she said.

Witnessing traumatic scenes on a daily basis, she likens her profession to that of a paramedic: “We see death often, domestic violence… and most of my workers come from bad situations themselves so it’s twice as taxing.”

She also hopes organizations, including hers, can beef up their workforce.

“We need to hire in mass numbers,” she said. “And then they need to be properly trained.”

Alvarez says learning through experience is valuable but risky in her line of work where there are real consequences to wrong moves; even if it’s a first try.

“If you say the wrong thing, you just might set someone off,” she said.

And if workers are properly trained, she thinks this will increase their longevity in the job.

“We’re taking care of people out there… Someone’s got to take care of us,” she said.

On Sundays, Howard can be found in the parking lot of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Here, Food on Foot’s Sunday Serving takes place, providing low-income and unhoused Angelenos with food, clothing and other items donated to the organization throughout the week.

Bouncing from one table to another, she calls everyone by name and greets them with a question: “How are you doing today?”

And when she’s not chatting up those filing through the line, she’s asking her coworkers “Where’s Adam today? Did he get his ID ok? Did Ruth get in with social services? Has Charley’s family come to see him at the hospital?”

On every other day of the week, Howard gives the same effort in other areas of L.A. and with people who need more than just food.

“I don’t see myself ever stopping,” she says. “I will never not owe it back.”

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