Archive for the ‘homelessness’ Tag

Fade to black – Is government leveraging homeless agencies out of business?

Written by Joel John Roberts

I sometimes long for the heydays when nonprofit homeless agencies flourished. It was in the 1980s; I was just becoming an adult.

Most of the homeless organizations in the Los Angeles region were created in that decade when compassionate and generous people—many from faith groups—created shelters, food banks, and transitional housing programs in response to the growing homeless population.

If you’re familiar with nonprofits in Los Angeles, you’ve certainly heard of Chrysalis, Beyond Shelter, PATH, and LA Family Housing. All agencies that started in the 1980s. Those were the days when hearts were moved, and purse strings opened. When even the federal government began to invest significant resources into addressing homelessness.

Those were the days… But reminiscing will get us nowhere.

Closed SignA few decades later, during the worst economy since the Great Depression, and oh how times have changed. We are entrenched in an environment of scarcity that sometimes pits typically good-hearted people and groups against each other. Competing for dwindling funds is becoming as harsh as the Coca Cola and Pepsi rivalry.

But hawking cans of carbonized sugar water is so much more insignificant than promoting programs that save people’s lives.

The days of free flowing government funding for homeless programs are over. Even when the latest federal stimulus program pumped in $1.5 billion into homeless prevention programs. Why? Because there is a catch.

Let me explain.

In most of today’s government funding programs, there is a quiet policy of “serve now, pay later.” Basically, private homeless agencies that win a contract to house or serve homeless people have to perform their services first, then bill for those services a month later. That means an agency pays salaries and operating expenses for a month, then waits a month or two to get paid.

Let me explain this in basic terms—nonprofit organizations have become the “line of credit” for government funding. For some agencies it could run as much as $50,000 to $300,000, plus interest if the agency is borrowing the funds.

Here’s another catch. Contract execution means payment delays. Every year, a contract has to be renewed and executed. It doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it takes months for renewed contracts to be executed, while agencies are not allowed to receive payments during that time. Can’t get paid if there’s no signed contract. But housing and services have to continue. You don’t shut down your shelter or housing program for a few months until a contract is signed. No one with any moral character is going to put homeless people back on the streets while they wait for a contract to be executed.

And then there’s this. Many, if not all government homeless programs now require a cash match. If you receive $100 dollars of government funds, you have to match that with $10 to $25 of private funding. It makes sense in a perfect world. Leverage public funds with private dollars.

But when every level of government funding requires this, many agencies just can’t afford to receive such funding. Especially when separate government agencies won’t allow an agency to use other government sources as leverage.

Let me put it this way. You have public funding to support 80 beds, only if you can find private support for 20 beds. But if you cannot fund 20 beds, then all 100 beds go away.

Cash match, is more like game, set, and match. Where government wins, and private agencies lose. And most importantly, there are less resources for hurting people on our streets.

Many organizations in Los Angeles, like GLASS and Women’s Care Cottage, have shut down their operations because of this.

You could say this is just the result of the survival of the fittest agency, but let’s get real. This is not about how many nonprofit agencies can survive. This is about how many people we can save from the streets.

This is not a debate on whether government funding should help hurting people, or whether the private community should. This is about people suffering on our streets.

And while there are still people languishing in alleys, parks, and along our freeways… then our society should do everything it can to help them off.

That means dispelling ideals, and just allow the funds that are already approved, to house and serve homeless people. Whether a nonprofit agency can leverage those funds or not.

Otherwise, more and more organizations created by compassionate community members will just fade to black.

(Pic from


The Best Design for a Sense of Place: EDAR

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER

Peter Samuelson likes to tinker with the things that scare or bother him. He’s found that sometimes walking up to your fears and having a chat with them can change many things in the world, and not just yourself.

Samuelson is a film producer and philanthropist who founded three major children’s philanthropies: the Starlight Children’s Foundation in 1982 to assist seriously ill children, the Starbright Foundation in 1990 to continue that work, and First Star in 1999 to benefit abused and neglected children. He credits his parents for instilling in him a sense of doing social good. But the entrepreneurial drive comes from being a film producer.

“You get very good as a film producer at fixing things … what a film producer does, is that every six or nine or twelve months, you are in some place you’ve never been to before, with a group of people you mostly don’t know, with a brand new script and you’re working out, What does this mean? How do we do this? How can we afford this? What is the solution to this? You get undaunted.”

He’s made films as varied as Revenge of the Nerds, The Libertine with Johnny Depp and John Malkovich, and Tom & Viv with Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson. But it was his sense of observation that led to the birth of something called the EDAR. It came about because he rides his bike on weekend mornings and started to notice that there were more homeless persons than before. “One of the things that has worked really well for me, that has its amusing side, is that if I’m a little bit scared of something I make myself do it.” He decided he would do interviews with the homeless people he encountered on his bike rides.

Samuelson interviewed 62 homeless persons and asked them two broad groups of questions: “How do you get money, and where do you sleep?” He learned that money came from recycling and sometimes panhandling. He also learned that their sleeping conditions were pretty rough. One day he had an epiphany when, near where he lived, he met a woman who was sleeping in a refrigerator box. The brand of refrigerator was the same kind as the one in his kitchen. The meeting started the philanthropist in him working, as well as the designer and the mathematician.

Click to hear a short clip of Peter telling the story.

“In the County of LA there are about 72,000 homeless people, and there are 12,400 beds in shelters. Building a shelter is at a marginal cost of about $50,000 per bed generated. So if you want a building with a hundred beds it’s about a five million dollar building. So if you run the math, $50,000 times 60,000, that’s three billion dollars, and I have no clue how you raise three billion dollars.”

He realized that the solution had to be cheap, better than a tent, and have wheels. It should have pockets so you could put recycling in it, and at night it better have brakes so you could park it and turn it into a bed. He also realized that it had to have windows, “so that you can keep an eye on what’s going on outside. That was as far as I got” on the EDAR concept.

Samuelson called a meeting with the dean of the Pasadena Art Center College of Design and asked him, “Have you ever had a competition for something non-profit?” They put together a contest, which Samuelson sponsored, to find the best design for a mobile shelter. Through the competition Peter met designers Eric Lindeman and Jason Zasa, who helped create what would become the EDAR. With wire design and fabrication provided by John Ondrasic and Mike Orozco of Precision Wire Inc., they went through about seven prototypes.

Click to hear Peter tell the story of how they tested the EDAR.

It costs a little under $500 to make an EDAR and they are given out free of charge. Each time Samuelson’s group receives another $500 in donations, they put it toward making another EDAR. Says Samuelson, “It’s the most blessedly simple thing that I’ve ever done philanthropically.”

Currently, there are 200 EDARs deployed in Los Angeles, Denver, Colorado Springs, Phoenix and Camden. NJ.  Julie Yurth Himot, the EDAR Program Coordinator, took me down to the Midnight Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles to meet a few people who are living in EDARs now.

Pops got one of the first EDARs and his only suggestion is that it needed stronger zippers. Julie promised him one of the newer models on which that design modification has been made. When I asked, Pops told me that he came to Los Angeles twenty years ago from North Carolina. He was skilled at installing flooring, tile and carpet and wanted to retire in Southern California. But things didn’t go as planned and he’s been at the Midnight Mission for a few years now.

Brenda likes the shelter of the courtyard at the Midnight Mission, particularly when she has an EDAR to grant her privacy. She also likes that it has windows. “You can see the planes go by, you can see the thunder and the lightning. You can see anything, cloudy days, sunny days, you can see anything. This is scenery.”

For more information about the EDAR, check out The EDAR has also been written up in Architecture Week, the Los Angeles Times, and the Sacramento Homeless blog.


Video by Corina Gamma

Through photography and filmmaking, Corina Gamma explores the many concepts of home. She conceptualizes home as not only a physical condition, but also as a state of mind. In her film documentary Ties on a Fence Corina Gamma captures the disenfranchised women of Skid Row in Los Angeles, their daily experiences and everyday struggles. Many of the interviews are articulated through conversations, poetry, and photographs taken by the women. “Ties on a Fence” was featured in nine film festivals nationwide and won awards for best documentary at the Black Earth Film Festival and also at the Santa Clarita Film Festival. Corina edited a special sequence from the film for us to present to you on SHELTER.

Only six city blocks from the financial district of downtown Los Angeles is “Skid Row,” an area with a large concentration of missions and shelters, which makes it the largest emergency-service dependent community in the United States. These services keep the homeless in a very isolated area.  This is the area Corina focuses on in her film. Some estimates have it that 35 to 45 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles County are women. “Ties on a Fence” was facilitated by the Downtown Women’s Center.

Motor Home Housing Launch Huge Success


L-R: Ed, Mikey, Bob, Maria, Victoria & Connor

Written by Bob Ballard of the Hearts Of Fire Project

Wow! What an amazing day we had at the launch of our new Motor Home Housing Program. This past Saturday, January 30 we awarded a motor home to Maria Pollack and her son Mikey at a ceremony hosted by Regalo Virgin Olive Oil. Representatives from three local newspapers covered the event as well as the local access TV station. More links to those stories at the end of this article.

Maria and her son were overjoyed when they saw the motor home; tears rolled down her face as she expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. Ed and Connie Bermudez donated the RV a few weeks ago. Ed wanted it to go to a homeless family. It was his generosity that started the program.

Victoria Stratton is Maria’s friend and sponsor. Victoria volunteers with Casa Esperanza homeless shelter in Santa Barbara where she heard about our program. She contacted me and told me about Maria and her son Mikey. Like many homeless people, Maria is employed but doesn’t earn enough money to rent an apartment or even buy a car. Maria met Victoria at church a year or so ago and they became friends. In addition to connecting Maria with our program, Victoria is providing a private parking place for the motor home on her property.

More families have contacted us who want to participate in this program. We are looking for more late model motor homes in good shape and people to help us give them a second life.  We are also need places to store the RV’s temporarily while we get them ready to distribute to homeless families. If you can help, please call our toll free message line at 877-827-2012 or email us at

Media Links for further information:

Ventura County Star

Ventura County Reporter

Video (courtesy of Barrett Productions)

Slide Show Media: Mike at River Haven

River Haven is a transitional community for people dealing with the issues of homelessness. Last September, World Shelters and The Turning Point Foundation teamed up with hundreds of volunteers to revitalize River Haven, which was previously functioning as a tent city encampment. The volunteers installed 19 geodesic structures called U-Domes, and later on others came by to improve the landscaping, provide beds, gas grills, a refrigerator, and offer other aspects of shelter many of us might take for granted. This is the first in what we intend to be a series of profile pieces about people who are living at River Haven and in other communities.

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38 Years. Tired. Ready. Don’t Say He Doesn’t Want To Be Housed.

Written by Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners.

I spend most of my days sitting in meetings. Talking on the phone. Sorting through emails. Conversing with people. Planning. Designing. Managing. Hoping.

It’s my job. Helping people.

Some people think it’s just busy work. Other people think it’s inspirational. God’s work, they say.

What do I think? It’s the reason for my being. My calling. My destiny. I don’t see it as a choice. It’s my mandate. It doesn’t matter what other people think.

So I walk into another meeting today. Not expecting much. Just another exercise of checking off items on an agenda. Introductions. Done. Preview of agenda. Done. First item…

…but this is a different gathering. The table is surrounded by outreach workers. Their purpose is to convince people living on the streets that they need help. They need to overcome their barriers. They need housing.

Wait. That’s my job too. Take off the tie and oxford shoes. And I look like an educated social worker.

It’s my job. Helping people.

The list on the table is filled with people we surveyed on the streets of Long Beach back in July. It’s a laundry list of hurting people. One has a terminal illness. Another fights demons in his soul. A few are drowning their existence with liquid poison. One is a product of a broken foster care system.

The facilitator of the meeting swipes a yellow highlighter over the name of one gentleman on the list. He has been living on the streets for 38 years. Yes, 38 years. He has cancer, and a few other stereotypical struggles that many visible homeless people encounter.

But this conversation is different. The police officer has convinced a landlord to allow this man to rent an apartment. The social worker has found subsidized rent. They go down a verbal list of other assistance.

“He’s tired,” says the social worker. “He’s ready. He wants a home. A roof over his head.” 38 years on the streets. And he’s ready. It’s practically a miracle. Even this jaded nonprofit executive is impressed.

The conversation turns to a discussion on how to get the furniture. The dishes. The linens. All the things that make a house a home. 38 years on the streets, and a group of people are planning what will be in the kitchen cabinets. Amazing.

No celebrations. No congratulations at the table. There are a few hundred other people we are also trying to reach. Too much work. Almost overwhelming.

But today was a good day. At least a hopeful day. Take away the tie and the oxford shoes, and I’m basically a social worker, a social engineer. Not an executive.

It’s my job. Helping people.

Can’t forget that.


Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH Partners, a nonprofit organization which helps communities integrate services with housing. He blogs regularly on inforUm, an online journal dedicated to housing, poverty and homelessness.

Running the Numbers

Written by Lee Schneider, director of SHELTER.

How many homeless people are there in the United States? It’s a tricky question to answer, but I want to try running some numbers past you. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has some good ones to get this started. They estimate there are 672,000 people on the streets every night. Of those 672,000, 37% are believed to be homeless families, usually a woman with one or two children.

Most homeless people are, as you might expect, looking for shelter in cities. But at least 20 percent of them are in rural areas, and that number may be even higher because the more remote the area, the harder it is to count the homeless who may be living there.

The number one state, with the most homeless of all? California.

That’s amazing to me: Our once-prosperous state, home to much innovation, money and creative energy, has become the homeless capital of America. According to some observers, it might be the nation’s first state to fail.

What I’ve written above are the most solid numbers I could find, and they’re from two years ago – the last time anybody compiled state-by-state data. Drawing from those 2007 numbers again, we learn that 42% of homeless people are living on the street, but more than half – 58% – are in transitional housing. That’s the spark of good news I think – because many believe that transitional, even temporary housing, is the way to help solve homelessness. To focus on that, let’s go to Ventura, California.

In Ventura, the numbers are newer, drawn from data gathered this year in the last week of January. On a given day, there are about 2200 homeless children and adults on the streets in Ventura. (Federal estimates put the number even higher, at more than 8,000, according to the Ventura County Star.) Most of those children and adults, 73%, are living on the streets but the remainder, a little over 25%, have found some kind of shelter, some in temporary accommodations such as River Haven.

Some experts believe that 18% of the homeless population are “chronically” homeless, meaning that they are mentally ill or otherwise unable to care for themselves.

There’s debate on that number, but even if it’s rough, it still means that a lot of homeless people are people who may have slipped into a tough position and are trying to work their way out. With the economy still in slow recovery mode, it means that we have a crisis on low simmer that’s not going to go away. More families are going to be looking for shelter.

This is where the architects and designers can step in with inventive solutions. Bruce LeBel of World Shelters recently put up another round of housing in Arcata. (Working with the Turning Point Foundation, Bruce’s company World Shelters revitalized the River Haven community in Ventura, California.) Vinay Gupta has long been developing the Hexayurt, a shelter that can be made from plywood, composites, hexacomb cardboard and other materials. He sees Hexayurts as a solution for regions with large scale rehousing needs, such as Bangladesh. They’ve also been used at Burning Man.  Vinay believes in open source design – anybody can build a Hexayurt – and many have!

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