November 19, 2018

Everyone Counts

Photo from Public Domain Pictures

Flashlight — check. Map — check. Safety rules — check. Police phone numbers — check.

Our four-person team jumped into the SUV and took off. No, we weren’t going on a wilderness trek. Our mission was to count the homeless — in Beverly Hills.

My journey through dark alleys that I didn’t know existed began when I received an email in early January from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles asking for volunteers to join the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA), which each year conducts a three-day mission to count our homeless neighbors across Los Angeles. Knowing how many homeless people live throughout the county factors into how much funding is needed for community services. An important and sensible reason, but I was just curious — who are the homeless? Where do they sleep? Are there many children living on the streets?

As the lead agency for the regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for homeless families and individuals in Los Angeles County, LAHSA manages more than $243 million annually for programs that provide shelter, housing and services to homeless people in Los Angeles city and county.

The count has four components: a street count; a shelter/institutional count of those who are in shelters, transitional housing, hospitals and correctional facilities; a demographic survey; and a youth count of unaccompanied and unsheltered youth and young families younger than 24 years who are experiencing homelessness.

The project resonated with me as a Jew and as a retired clinical social worker who believes that each person has merit and that we are obligated to help those in need. LAHSA believes that “everyone counts.” In Judaism, we believe the same.

I signed up for the street count along with my daughter Elana and our friend Maor with no idea what to expect or where we would be assigned. I had visions — and I think hopes — of walking streets and freeway underpasses looking for and communicating with individuals and families. Instead, our team of four was assigned to — OMG — my neighborhood. My desire for adventure was unfulfilled but the anxiety that accompanied that desire diminished.

The project resonated with me as a Jew and as a retired clinical social worker.

The night began with a training session in City Hall. Looking around the room of volunteers, I was the oldest at age 73. The professional task force in front of us was impressive. Two licensed clinical social workers, police officers and para-professionals. I felt pride that our affluent community cared about the homeless. The presentation displayed great respect for the homeless — for instance, they never force or put demands on anyone to go to a shelter. They are ready to assist any person or family who is ready to accept help. We were told more than once that we shouldn’t intrude if we encounter a homeless individual or enclave. Remember, whatever it looks like, it is still their home. Respect. Human dignity. These words spoke to my humanity, my Jewish values.

And so we set out with flashlights, a map, paper and pen, and tags to wear with emergency phone numbers. Combing a 2-mile radius up and down 10 streets, 30 blocks, and 15 dark alleys; canvassing construction sites and empty lots; we were looking for the telltale signs of the homeless. We were to scrutinize collections of stuff, very large cartons, vans or cars with blankets covering the windows, shopping carts and waste materials.

Maor drove his SUV, I navigated and Elana and a young man sat in the back seat peering out the windows using their flashlights. After several hours of driving the dark alleys and streets, we spotted just one van — an old black-and-white VW van near a construction site. The windows were partially covered, stuff was inside — possibly somebody lived there. We noted this finding.

That such an organized effort took place in an upscale neighborhood impressed me. Over three nights, the 2018 greater Los Angeles homeless count drew 8,608 volunteers to 166 deployment sites, the full findings of which are yet to be tallied. The Beverly Hills effort found 15 homeless individuals, one makeshift shelter and one van.

Los Angeles is sending a message to the homeless, wherever they may live, that they all count.

Ada Horwich is active in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and serves as a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Rabbi Noah Farkas leads faith-based approach with agency helping homeless

Rabbi Noah Farkas. Photo courtesy of Valley Beth Shalom

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom has taken charge of Los Angeles’ homelessness agency as two new tax measures are beginning to provide the agency with millions of additional dollars to address the city’s growing homelessness problem.

At an Aug. 10 meeting, the 10-member governing board of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) appointed the 38-year-old rabbi as its chairman.

Farkas’ leadership comes at a watershed moment for the authority. In the last year, L.A. voters have passed two tax measures to equip LAHSA with new funds intended to house the homeless: Proposition HHH, a county measure approved in November to build new housing units; and Measure H, a citywide sales tax passed in March to pay for services such as counseling and addiction treatment. Proposition HHH is slated to bring in $1.2 billion, while Measure H is projected to raise more than $3.5 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the county’s homeless population is on the rise, jumping 23 percent from January 2016 to January 2017, to nearly 58,000, according to the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.

A 2008 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Farkas has made homelessness a centerpiece of his rabbinate at the Conservative synagogue in Encino, frequently sermonizing on the topic and entering into interfaith partnerships to address it. In 2015, County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl appointed him to a seat on the commission that oversees LAHSA, a 24-year-old partnership between Los Angeles city and county.

He spoke with the Journal on Aug. 10, shortly after being sworn in as the commission’s chair, about his hopes and aims for his one-year term. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jewish Journal: As a rabbi and as a Jew, what do you feel you bring to the LAHSA chairmanship?

Noah Farkas: My role on the commission, given my background as a faith leader, is to bring a moral voice when I think morality needs to be injected into the system, to bring a calming voice when voices of disagreement arise on a certain level. I might not understand every budget line; I might not understand every rubric for funding or every reason why every political decision is made, but what I understand more fundamentally than anything else is that it’s because of the work of the commission and the agency it oversees that people get off the street and have a chance at life again.

JJ: City officials suggest from time to time that L.A.’s homelessness crisis be declared an emergency, either on the state or national level. What would that mean? Do you think homelessness is an emergency in Los Angeles?

NF: On a moral level, I don’t see a difference between an emergency that happened in one night and an emergency that happened over 15 years. It’s a slow-moving catastrophe that has built to this point, where we have nearly 60,000 people in the county who have been displaced because of mental illness, because of poverty, because of high rents and housing crises.

If there were 60,000 people displaced because of a mudslide or a fire or an earthquake, we would declare it as a state of emergency. The solutions around Measure H and Prop. HHH are excellent funding vehicles, but that money’s not coming from the state, that money’s not coming from the national government, that money’s only coming from ourselves. By declaring a state of emergency, we can open additional streams of funding and fast track our way into the solutions to this problem.

JJ: The homeless population jumped by nearly a quarter in 2016. How do you explain that increase?

NF: We voted in November and then again in the spring for these new funding strategies, but they didn’t come through until July 1. So all the money that we raised through bonds and taxes to pay for all of the funding strategies didn’t fund till last month. The homeless count takes place in January, so the uptick was expected in some ways because we hadn’t funded anything yet; we had just approved it. My guess is in the coming year, the numbers won’t change all that significantly, but in the following year, that is when we expect to make major gains because the funding would have hit the streets.

JJ: That explains why homelessness has gone up in general. But what explains such a huge increase between last year in particular?

NF: The counting has gotten a lot more comprehensive. So what happens is, when you have a bigger flashlight, you can see more things. That’s definitely part of it. But the housing vacancy rate is now the lowest in the country for the first time. It’s less than 2 percent. Of all the apartments, all the rooms, all the houses in the entire continuum, only 2 percent on any given day are unoccupied. That means, though, that if you’re looking for a place to live, you’re competing with all these other people. So that’s a big driver. You have a tighter housing market. The third piece is we haven’t really successfully dealt with mental illness and trauma in the way that we have to. I guess I would add one more piece. In trying to correct mass incarceration in California, a lot of people who are exiting the criminal justice system are exiting into homelessness, because we don’t have the proper infrastructure in place. So that adds another upward pressure on the number.

JJ: It takes a while to build housing for the homeless. What is LAHSA doing in the meanwhile to help people who are on the streets today?

NF: The long-term solution is to build infrastructure with wraparound services because we know in models across the country that people who are experiencing homelessness, if you give them a place to live and give them opportunity to deal with their traumas and addictions, that they will no longer be homeless. But it can take 18 months to two years to build a single building to be a hub for these programs. So we’re not there yet.

In the meantime, there are other opportunities that LAHSA has already engaged in. The first is the rapid expansion of what are called ERT teams, emergency response teams. They’re essentially pairs of people who are trained in counseling and social work and mental health services that actually go out to the ravines and they go out to Skid Row and all over the city to engage with people who are homeless and get them entered into the system so we can track them and help them. There are 50 teams and at any given time, two-thirds of them are out. In the past, there were only about half of that, if not less.

JJ: What was broken in the social fabric of Los Angeles that made it necessary to pass new tax measures? And how is that going to change under your leadership?

NF: The homelessness count is like taking a temperature of whether or not the city has a fever. Having a high temperature, that’s not the thing that’s making you sick. There are other things that are making you sick. It’s the same way with homelessness. People who are experiencing homelessness are an indicator of whether the city is doing right
by its own residents, morally and in a humanitarian way. And the city got really sick. It still is.

Luckily, we’ve decided to address it. We have to really service the root causes, which are poverty, mental illness and, ultimately, the housing crisis. Homelessness is also key to understanding inequality. I’m a social justice rabbi; I’m not just a homelessness rabbi. But this is a road in, this is a way of working on social justice from the bottom up. I can’t abide as a rabbi and a Jew seeing people suffer, and I see people suffering.

Census of homeless will ensure proper funding for programs

The carload of concerned locals, including an Orthodox rabbi, a pizzeria owner and a construction project site manager, peered into an alley in search of signs of life.

“This alley’s actually too thin to live in,” Pico Shul’s Rabbi Yonah Bookstein said as the sedan carrying the group crawled across a narrow alley in a residential block of West Los Angeles, the vehicle’s headlights illuminating only concrete covered in overgrown weeds. 

The group was searching for homeless people, vehicles being used as homes, and makeshift shelters and tents as part of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) Greater L.A. Homeless Count on Jan. 28. They were among the 60 volunteers who gathered at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center, one of 150 deployment centers for participants, before setting off on foot and by car into the night.

By the end of the survey, which began at 7:30 p.m., Bookstein’s group tallied seven homeless individuals, including a man who was seated upright at a bus stop near La Brea Avenue and Washington Boulevard and concealed under a blanket, and two beaten-up recreational vehicles that appeared as though they were being used purely for shelter.

Bookstein, whose fellow volunteers included Darren Melamed, owner of the kosher restaurant Pizza World, and Aaron Korda, a Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy graduate now working in construction, expressed optimism about the results of the count.

“While tonight we might not have seen any large-scale homeless encampments in our particular area, we all know they exist here in L.A., and those groups covering those areas are tasked with counting those people,” he said. “The place where we counted was much more sparsely populated, but, we, just getting out of the car and looking around, found [about] 10 people who were either in the streets or in cars or were otherwise homeless.”

About 95 percent of the county’s census tracts were covered during the three-day event from Jan. 26-28, according to LAHSA spokeswoman Naomi Goldman. The rabbi noted how U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for local homeless programs is contingent on Los Angeles keeping a count of how many homeless people are here. 

“This is a really important part, counting the homeless, because a lot of funds are distributed to programs, services and agencies to help people based on numbers,” he said. “So if we don’t have an accurate count, we can’t get accurate funding.”

In total, the volunteers who turned out to Kaiser on Jan. 28 counted 40 individuals who they identified as homeless and 70 vehicles that appeared as if they were being used as shelter, according to Veronica Rios, a volunteer coordinator of the Kaiser deployment site and a member of Mid City Neighborhood Council. 

Rios said this was her first time helping with the count, in which volunteers are equipped with flashlights, maps and clipboards and are divided into walking and driving teams of four. They determine if someone is homeless by gauging his or her appearance, behavior and condition — the “ABCs,” according to a guide given to the volunteers. When counting parked cars, they consider criteria such as if a vehicle is in disrepair, has its lights on inside and has blankets on the windows. 

People of many faiths turned out to help, including Tara Hill, a Baptist who is a project manager at Kaiser and has been an employee of the hospital for 26 years. (Many of the volunteers were hospital employees.)

“I like to give back for one thing, and we’re having more and more homeless people [in this city]. I drive to and from work and I see probably 10 people,” she said, seated in the crowd during introductory remarks by LAHSA commissioner Kerry Morrison, as volunteers drank coffee and enjoyed fruit snacks.

Goldman added: “We absolutely had a diverse representation of people all across the county who want to work on this issue, who want to improve the quality of life, and I think the faith-based community was a very strong partner this time around.”

The count is an undertaking involving 7,500 volunteers fanning out across 10 regions of L.A. County. Every city is involved except Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale, which are not under the jurisdiction of the count’s organizer, LAHSA.

This year marked the first time a count took place for two consecutive years; previous counts were held biannually. LAHSA officials hope to hold the count every year from now on so as to have the best possible data on the homeless population. Last year, 44,000 homeless people were tallied; this year’s results won’t be available until May, Goldman said.

“At this point, we’re not going to speculate on the numbers,” she said. “The whole point in doing all this is to get the best numbers and best information we can.”