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LA Homeless Project is Controversial

Audio

Aired 8/11/10

Los Angeles is trying something new with its chronic homeless population: It is taking 50 of the most hard-core homeless and giving them housing with no strings attached. Why? It may be cheaper than leaving them on the streets, and it may even help them to stay off.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Almost all shelters for the homeless make a bargain with their clients. You can have a bed, get a meal, take part in a program, but you've got to stop drinking, stop using drugs, start taking your medication and get counseling. Because of that bargain, there are many so-called hardcore homeless that hardly ever qualify for help. Up in Los Angeles, a program has been underway to house members of the hardcore homeless population without requiring them to get sober or get counseling. It's a concept called Housing First, and LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard has just completed a series of reports on the project. He joins us now to tell us the story. And, good morning, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD (Reporter): I’m glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, could you start by telling us about LA County’s Project 50? What’s the idea behind it?

GOFFARD: This got launched in late 2007, early 2008, and the idea is pretty much as you described it: Find the hardest of the hardcore homeless and get them into shelter however necessary. Do away with the traditional requirements that seem to prevent a lot of people from getting shelter. In other words, they wouldn’t have to go through 12 Step programs, they wouldn’t have to seek psychiatric counseling, they wouldn’t have to see doctors. Get them into housing, was the idea, and then once they’re stabilized send them help and see how much they would accept.

CAVANAUGH: One of the ideas behind the very term Project 50 is that workers went out, social workers went out, to look for the 50 people on LA’s Skid Row who were most likely to die?

GOFFARD: Right, they looked for people with some combination of serious illness, HIV, kidney disease, liver disease, cancer. On top of that they found a lot of people with mental illness and terrible substance abuse problems. In a lot of cases, people had all of those things. They were sick, they were mentally ill, and they had serious drug problems going back many years. And they – these risk factors were tallied up and they found out of about 350 people that they interviewed, they found the 50 that they deemed likeliest to die in the streets and they went out and specifically targeted them, hoping that they could get them some help.

CAVANAUGH: Now in your series of reports, you document how that search was conducted in LA’s – or, on LA’s Skid Row area. And if you could, tell us a little bit more about us (sic), and for people who are unfamiliar, I would say most of us, with LA’s Skid Row, describe the area for us, if you could.

GOFFARD: It’s 50 square blocks right in downtown LA. And it’s been called ground zero for homelessness in the United States of America. It has maybe the greatest concentration of homelessness in the country. When they went out a couple years ago just counting the heads on the sidewalks, they found 450 people and that’s just on the streets, not counting people who are sheltered in the missions. There are a lot of missions there, there are soup kitchens, there are a lot of electronic shops, fake flower shops, silk flower shops, fish processing warehouses, a lot of barbed wire, at the same time, this area abuts a thriving area of commerce. It’s a couple blocks from the Los Angeles Times offices and city hall. So this area has been growing since the 1970s. In the mid-seventies, something called the Containment Plan gave rise to Skid Row. It was basically a bargain struck between people with an interest in preserving the area for – or developing the area for commerce and those who were concerned about the homeless in the area. And what emerged was this intense concentration of homelessness and services for the homeless.

CAVANAUGH: One of the most powerful scenes you describe in your series of articles, Christopher, is how when even seasoned veterans, social service workers, were looking for the 50 most likely to die homeless people for this project, when they went to Skid Row after all the businesses had closed and it was dark and it had been turned over to its homeless population, they were out of their element, they – a lot of them just wanted to give up.

GOFFARD: I think that even people who had worked on Skid Row weren’t prepared for what they would encounter at 3:00 a.m. They had to go out at 3:00 a.m. because that’s when they would find the actual people who lived there on the streets. When the sun rises, it’s very hard to find them. They disappear into the shelters or leave the area. And so they had to go out when they could find the people that they needed to help, and I don’t think anybody was quite ready for the intensity for what they saw.

CAVANAUGH: Did you go there, Christopher?

GOFFARD: I wasn’t…

CAVANAUGH: Were you with them?

GOFFARD: I wasn’t on the initial hunt but I went out on a subsequent one and was able to see – was able to see what it looked like at that hour. And I think they made a wise choice in going in packs and not wandering alone into some of those areas.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard, and he has just completed a series of reports in the LA Times about LA’s Project 50. You write about a woman named Carrie Bach, who was in charge of Project 50. Tell us a little bit about her.

GOFFARD: Carrie Bach was the first director of Project 50. And she’s a 54-year-old nurse with the Public Health Department. And she had a brush with near homelessness herself years ago which, I think, gave her an insight into the kind of desperation some people find themselves in, although the extremes of pain that she was confronting were far beyond her experience. And she kind of led the project for the first year, and became what a lot of people thought was the soul of the project. She invested a lot of herself in it and, well, as I describe in the series, she left after the first year. I think there was a feeling of burnout that overcame a lot of people. And I think it was taking a toll on her, although it’s possible that she might’ve liked to have stayed longer.

CAVANAUGH: Now getting back to the fundamental idea of this Housing First concept, the concept that LA’s Project 50 adopted. I think for a lot of people in the audience, giving hardcore homeless a place to live without any strings about having to get sober or counseling is counterintuitive. It also offends the sensibilities. But what is the thinking behind this approach to homelessness? Is it – is there any practicality involved in it?

GOFFARD: Well, there is the fiscal argument to be made. The idea is that the homeless, the hardcore homeless, cost taxpayers enormously in emergency services already. There was one person in the program that I write about, named Cathy McFee, and her last year on the streets she racked up $90,000 worth of hospital bills for in-patient visits and ER visits. And in the year after she was housed with access to a nurse, this virtually disappeared. So Zev Yaroslavsky, who is on the board of supervisors and who launched this idea, made the fiscal argument from the beginning, and I think they understood they had to justify it in financial terms. As one person told me, if we don’t do that, it just looks like bleeding heart stuff. There is still some resistance on the board of supervisors to this idea. Not everybody is getting treatment. You can’t guarantee that once you get somebody into housing he or she is going to see the counselor, is going to take the pills, psychiatric pills, so there are no guarantees in this but the results seem to be mostly positive. They, all in all, they found, I think, 68 people, and 80% and upwards of that are still housed in one form or another. So by that yardstick, it seems to be a success.

CAVANAUGH: Christopher, tell us a little bit about the background of some of the people that were housed. First of all, where was this housing? Where did the homeless people go?

GOFFARD: They’re basically refurbished flop houses, refurbished by Skid Row Housing Trust, so they’re right in the area, which itself is kind of controversial because people who’ve been on crack for 20, 30 years, are getting housing in the very area where they’ve been doing this, and psychological triggers surround them. So some of the people who do Housing First projects in other areas favor something called offsite housing, where you don’t concentrate them all in an area like Skid Row where temptation is everywhere. So they’re…

CAVANAUGH: They tend…

GOFFARD: …they’re basically very, very simple, very humble little efficiency apartments.

CAVANAUGH: You’re talking about temptation and it reminds me of the homeless man you write about named Cliff Butler, the polish man, for instance. He was housed very close to a place where he used to make a living basically polishing trucks, and smoking crack.

GOFFARD: Right, and Carrie Bach urged him to stay away from there. She thought that she had to redirect him. She got him a job at a carwash but he lasted only a few days. He found it demeaning to work for small tips and knew that he could make $150 in an afternoon polishing a truck, and he went back there with, you know, with sad consequences because he got sucked back into the life that he was trying to escape.

CAVANAUGH: You write about an unusual case, someone who is an unlikely resident of Skid Row, a man named Paul Sigler. Tell us about him.

GOFFARD: Paul Sigler, he – From the start, he would tell people, I used to be a millionaire, when they pulled him off the streets. He had been living in a tent on Skid Row and had a bad crack habit. And he told people these stories of how he had incredible wealth once, he had a suite at the Staples Center, he had a huge business, and a lot of people didn’t believe him. But I checked out his story and much it could be confirmed. I got his high school yearbook. He grew up in San Marino. He was on the wrestling team. He went to college. I talked to some of his former business associates, and he did have very much – a life very much like he describes but he also suffers from manic depression and had a cocaine habit which plunged him into Skid Row. He was one of the mysteries for a long time to the Project 50 team. Was he who he said he was? And it’s very difficult down there to know who’s telling the truth about what because people wear masks, they have, you know, they’ve cultivated a street persona that they can switch on and off. Some of it’s protection. Some of it is to keep enemies away, some of it is the delusions of people with mental illness. In Sigler’s case, just about all of it that I could confirm was true.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, at the same time, he was so deeply into stress in LA’s Skid Row that he made the cut, so to speak, as one of the 50 most likely to die on LA’s Skid Row.

GOFFARD: Yeah, he’d had a brush with cancer and he had the drug addiction and he had the mental illness, so he had three major risk factors, which studies have shown are heralds of dying on the street. And – but at the same time, he had a high-functioning mind and he was able to make steps to bring himself out of there. At least he’s in the process of doing that. He’s trying to get his business back together, he’s on his cell phone all the time trying to make a deal.

CAVANAUGH: Right, you write about that, yeah.

GOFFARD: He’s back in touch with a lot of his old friends so…

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line, Christopher. Allison is calling us from Tierrasanta. Good morning, Allison, and welcome to These Days.

ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Good morning. I wanted to call because last week my husband and my two teenage daughters went on a mission trip to LA to Compton and Watts to do some rebuilding. And actually one of the things they did while they were there was to go to Skid Row and to hand out, you know, water bottles and other items. But the main reason they went was to just interact with the homeless people there, to talk with them, to treat them like human beings, to just to learn their stories, to find out information about who they are. And my husband and my children were both really touched just by their willingness to just open up and share and to talk. My husband said that they seem to be hungry and deprived for, you know, quality human attention. And my children just mentioned that they also received several warnings from the people on Skid Row about what not to do in your life, how not to end up there. And so I think it was just a really good eye-opening experience for them.

CAVANAUGH: Allison, thanks for sharing that story. I appreciate it. I wonder, Christopher, what was this experience like for you? Because, I mean, in these series of articles, you got to know a lot of the people who are in this housing and sharing their ups and downs with them, what kind of world did this open up for you?

GOFFARD: Well, I was really pulling for them. I tried to temper my hopes because I know then in a lot of cases the odds are very steep. But I – I’ve known some of them now for two years. I talk to Paul Sigler regularly, he calls me, I call him. And some of his old friends actually have been calling me after having read the series and saying put me in touch with Paul, I wondered what happened to him. But at the same time, you have to maintain a journalistic distance.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

GOFFARD: And it’s very dangerous to get too attached because these are very precarious lives that they lead. Going to Allison’s point, I think there is a great hunger, a great longing for human connection out there and some of the people, it’s more obvious than others. Cliff Butler, the polish man, Carrie Bach saw him as probably the loneliest and most isolated of the people out there and tried very hard to reach him. Although if you’re directing a project like that, there’s also the danger that the boundaries aren’t quite clear enough.

CAVANAUGH: Right. In the minute that we have left, Christopher, what is the take on this? Has Project 50 been a success?

GOFFARD: By the definition that it set for itself, yes. About 80% of the people remain housed in one form or another. And so I think in that sense it’s a success. Whether the political will is there to extend it, remains to be seen, although it has had an impact across the country. I think there are about 5500 apartments now in various Housing First programs in existence. Many of them, I’m told, have been inspired by Project 50, and it’s successes.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for speaking with us and I want to urge everyone who’s interested to check out Christopher Goffard’s series of reports on LA’s Project 50 in the LA Times. Thank you, Christopher.

GOFFARD: Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And to our audience, a project similar to LA’s Project 50 is about to be introduced in San Diego under the auspices of the United Way. We’ll be bringing you more information on it after the formal announcement next week. Now, coming up, we mark the start of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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