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Hansen: Rethinking the approach to homeless

Over the last 100 years, technological advances have revolutionized entire countries, but over the last 1,000 years, social advances have done little to fundamentally change homelessness and hunger.

In Laguna Beach, the homeless issue is a known quantity. Every night, the 45-bed shelter in Laguna Canyon is filled to capacity.

There is always a waiting list. Those who don't make it sleep elsewhere — usually outside. Occasionally, especially on cold, rainy nights, they manage a bed in a local church with the help of volunteers.

Local religious and civic leaders are trying to change this approach, with an eye toward the long view.

The current model is based on an archaic U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reward system, where the homeless have to prove themselves by getting sober, for example, then working through various stages to demonstrate stability before actually receiving housing and social services.

The new model, Housing First, reverses the process. As the name implies, the first step is to get the homeless sheltered.

"The answer to homelessness is housing. The answer to hunger is feeding," said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, which staffs the Alternative Sleeping Location under contract with the city.

"Housing First is saying, 'I realize that you are a person with untreated mental illness right now, but you're still a human being, and you're a person who deserves to have a roof over your head, and we're going to help you with that,'" she said. "And hopefully, when you take away those daily stressors of where am I going to eat, where am I going to sleep, you're going to become more able to address the other underlying issues in your life."

Religious leaders back this approach, citing greatly improved outcomes and better, more humane treatment.

"Housing First, I think, is hugely important," said Kent Doss, minister of Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach. "It's the whole teaching people to fish rather than giving them the fish, and giving them the opportunity to help themselves, which they'll never be able to do, unless they have a stable place to come home."

BJ Beu of Neighborhood Congregational Church is also a strong supporter of Housing First and has worked closely on homeless issues around the country throughout his tenured ministry.

Beu said the success rate for transitioning the homeless in the HUD model is 20%; in the Housing First model, it's 80%.

"The biggest issue that I think we have facing us with the homeless is affordable housing," Beu said. "In Laguna Beach, there is just no such thing as affordable housing. ... That can be done in the Verizon lot where the temporary ASL location is. That's the big goal of those of us who are housing advocates."

Price and others are working with the city to discuss long-term options for the site, but the plans are preliminary.

In the meantime, Beu and other church leaders sometimes struggle to manage the current workload. For example, nearly every dinner provided at the shelter comes from church volunteers, who rotate the duty.

"These churches are doing just a tremendous job for us," Price said. "This year alone, they've provided already over 20,000 meals. They will continue to do that every night. We've never missed a night. That's something faith communities do very well. They see a need and they see a practical way to meet that need, and they stick with it."

For Doss, who spent his early years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, the local delivery of food is critical, but he wonders why it is so difficult globally.

"There is plenty of food in the world; there always has been plenty of food in the world," he said. "The question of hunger is more a political one and a question of getting resources to the people who need it. The idea that people would go hungry in the United States is insane. But the political mechanics of how we get there is something that I'm not sure of.

"The fact that we're actually feeding far more people at the shelter than are actually sleeping there is a tremendous step in the right direction."

Beu believes Laguna Beach is uniquely positioned to solve its own problems, but it will continue to take concerted effort, and perhaps a shift in our social expectations.

"We live in a bubble in Laguna Beach," he said. "The air we breathe is very rarefied. And one of the things that frustrates me at times is someone will say, 'Well, we're going to go work with the homeless in Santa Ana,' and it's like, why are you going to go to Santa Ana when we have people here?"

Doss also believes that the turning point for citizens comes when they "think beyond themselves and understand that these people around them — either here in town or in the wider world — are human beings, are worthy of a full belly, and that sometimes we need to make some sacrifice in our own lives to help those who are in need."

From an economic and political perspective, Beu sees one dominant change that could help homelessness: universal health care.

"Every time a homeless person goes to the emergency room, we pick up the tab," he said. "We need to find ways for everybody to have primary care physicians. That change has got to happen for everybody's benefit. It's going to save us all a lot of money. It's killing businesses to try to provide health insurance for their employees, and why businesses are not getting onboard with this, I'm not entirely sure."

Doss put the argument in local terms, appealing to the fundamental gap between rich and poor.

"I think having some real conversations about the difference in wealth in Laguna Beach, which is a terrifying conversation that no one wants to have, is important," he said. "The difference between deciding if you'll eat lunch at Nick's or at the Lumberyard, versus trying to catch a bus to get grocery vouchers or a used suit that you might be able wear to a job interview, are just radically different experiences of living.

"What would it mean for those who have more resources to give up a little bit of that so that someone else can eat?"

Back at the shelter, it's a few minutes before 5 p.m., when the doors will open. There are dozens of people getting restless. A few start to pound on the chain-link gate, wanting in. Someone picks up small pebbles and throws them at the window.

They are begging to be let in.

They want their favorite cot, their hot food, their shower.

They have a routine, such as it is.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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