How to House the Unhoused: A Roadmap

What if we had a roadmap that promised to help move people from the streets into housing? Would that inspire more of us to accompany and help unhoused people on that journey? Matt Harper interviews two longtime housing advocates to create such a roadmap for L.A.’s Skid Row. This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Catholic Agitator.

The Catholic Worker has long opposed the professionalization and outsourcing of activities that are our personal (and collective) responsibilities. Too often have we tolerated excuses for our inaction because “It is not my place” or “I don’t know enough yet.” We each could do far more than we are.

One obstacle, it seems, is not knowing the way forward. Although that has never stopped the most courageous amongst us, we are not all Harriet Tubman. We do not all see the urgency and personal stake in taking away the risk.

However, what if we had a roadmap that promised, for example, to help move people from the streets into housing? Would that inspire more of us to take the next step?

Recognizing that there are individuals who have built quite an extensive treasure of knowledge and wisdom in navigating the complicated journey towards housing, I recently sat down with two individuals who have grown their practice and promise: Jordan Spoliansky and Sieglinde Von Deffner.

This “guide” is the fruit of that conversation. We invite you to consider using it in your area.

Although it may not work as neatly for those outside Skid Row, it offers a framework into which you can fill in the specifics of your community’s processes, as you find them. When you learn tricks, resources, or best practices for supporting someone in your area, please share your roadmaps with us.

We cannot force people into housing, but the notion that most people on the streets do not want a roof over their heads is one malicious lie that permits the barbarism of poverty and houselessness to continue unabated.

Each of us would know this is not the case if we took the time to get to know people who sleep in tents, vehicles, subways, on park benches, and on sidewalks. So the question presents itself: Can we summon the concern and compassion to do our part to help someone get off the streets?

Skid Row. By The Erica Chang, CC BY 3.0.

Like most things of value, we must begin by building a relationship with a person our society has cast aside. Taking the time to understand the specifics of their story, of who they are, and what they have experienced, to know their particular needs, and to make tangible efforts to care for them builds trust and proves the kind of neighbor we can and should be. Moving someone into housing and keeping them there is a journey that will be fraught with challenges; it is easy to stick with a hard thing if it is flanked by a supportive relationship.

Part of building a relationship is to be mindful of the power, assumptions, and expectations that exist. If we are trying to empower people, that has to include tolerating processes that we do not completely control. When working with the most vulnerable, with people who have been traumatized by systems and other people, we cannot assume that “something is better than nothing”: they have and deserve to have needs and boundaries. And if we have a negative interaction, can we choose compassion rather than judgment? Can we stick with it when hard moments inevitably arise?

Logistically, navigating our current system requires names and date of birth; an ID plays an invaluable role. A Social Security card for those who are documented, a consulate ID card for those without documentation, or an ID of another form can go a long way to aid these bureaucracies.

It will be very helpful, as much as is possible, to get an accurate idea of the specific needs and limits of the person we are supporting. This involves listening to their named needs and asking clarifying questions that really get underneath any cursory responses. What are their specific mobility or medical needs that could impact their success in housing? What other things might play a factor? Rather than assuming they will need every service available, how can we get clarity on the specifics: do they really need mental health services onsite, or if they had support in making it to local appointments, would that be enough? Do they have language translation needs? Do they want to be housed with or near a trusted person?

Navigating any complicated process can be frustrating. Transitions are hard and our systems and structures are often clunky. How can we help prepare people for this bureaucracy and all the emotions that will come up? People must sense permission to be anxious, worried, frustrated, and upset, even if getting housed is exciting. Feelings are normal and people have had complex experiences: in all sorts of places (even ones that might not make sense to us) and with all sorts of people. Invite them to keep communicating as things come up. There is nothing wrong with concerns, comments, or criticisms.

In an attempt to relieve the complex emotions that will arise, do not offer false promises. The system and structures in place likely will not be able to meet every need immediately; rather than making a promise you cannot know, commit to listening and looking into possible solutions together. “We build momentum through a lot of communication and support,” Jordan reminded me. Just because we start down one path does not mean that is the road people have to stay on. There is always room for shifts as we learn more and other options become available. Help people recognize both that they are in the driver’s seat and that there are many roads we can take to get to their final destination.

As we learn the specific needs of those with whom we walk, it is best to consider what interim housing option will be best for their current needs.

Some buildings—like the mission shelters—offer high-capacity shared rooms with light case management and services, and come with very environments. Some Bridge Home sites (like the Hilda Solis Center) offer one or two-person rooms and can offer more enhanced services and support (basic case management). Some crisis Bridge beds offer a robust amount of family beds. Though it may change, some of these current units come with requirements on curfew (which can include you cannot reenter after 10 PM or you have to check in to your room every four days).

For those who need medical support, buildings are managed to offer either stabilization support or recuperative care. Stabilization offers robust case management help whereas recuperative care is where people go who have an injury or illness that requires more medical support as they heal. This can include support with medicines, ADA needs, and the availability of specialized medical equipment. Hospice care is also often done in these spaces.

For people who need and are engaged (or who are willing to engage) in mental health services, there are Department of Mental Health funded beds at the Weingart, and the Ross, and elsewhere on Skid Row that offers the support of the DMH concierge team which, because of recent funding supports, can really enhance the level of services in these sites so that new residents can best navigate appointments, schedules, and so on.

For most, the hope is to transition from interim to permanent housing. There are roughly 2000 units scheduled to come online in and around Skid Row in the next 3-5 years. 290 units (and the support of intensive case management) are earmarked for people who have been impacted by the justice system. This flexible housing can also serve people not eligible for a federal subsidy (Section 8) because of criminal history, eviction from a federal building, or documentation status.

Although it is good to know the housing options available to people, the county is working to consolidate all the referral pathways—the L.A. Homeless Outreach Portal, the Department of Mental Health’s drop-in center, the Coordinated Entry System—into one place. This “air traffic controller” will know exactly what beds are available and will work to ensure that each person coming in finds the best housing option to meet their specific needs and realities.

They will help each person identify if it is really in their interest to stay in the Skid Row area or if finding a new location will set them up for the greatest success. They will help ensure that anyone who needs their pet as a support animal can get the proper documentation.

Although this person will have important knowledge, there is no substitute for what a relationship brings to this process.

However, the goal is not that each of us will hold that relationship alone for all the complex needs that can arise. The aim is also to offer a warm handoff that shares the relationship with the worker helping navigate the housing process. This handoff is not just about offering a relationship, but could also be in the form of an information tree so that the staff knows what to do and who to contact when an issue arises.

The hope is that this handoff is not a one-and-done act. By following up with case workers, by continuing to check in on the people we have entrusted to the care of this “rotten, decadent, putrid system,” as Dorothy Day named it, we will ensure continued support for these understaffed entities and ensure our people remain top of mind for their caseworkers.

Perhaps God’s mercy, forgiveness, and redemption are not offered to systems and structures; but can transformation really come from impersonal bureaucracies and red tape? Maybe all we have is the person right in front of us: breathing, broken, in dire need of help.

I cannot help but wonder: will this information move anyone to support someone in the journey to housing? Will this inspire anyone to take the risk and try doing something they have never done? I cannot help but ask myself if I should feel fortunate if folks even make a copy and give it to someone they know on the street.

Yet watching our friend Billy get housed awhile back lit a small flame of hope that he is not the exception to the story of housing. Watching people struggling to live on the streets each day is enough to make me want to give everything a chance. Does that make me a holy fool, or just a fool? I don’t know. But I will only learn by trying, I will only get better by taking a risk. And of all the things worth risking, maybe this is the deserving one. Unless I can talk to you about creating a “Christ room” (bringing  someone into your home), will you join me in giving this process a real chance?

More reading: Christ on Skid Row | Commonweal Magazine

This article originally appeared in the August issue of The Catholic Agitator, the publication of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.

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