Sep 17, 2015 by


  A homeless woman sits under an umbrella in downtown Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong / AP)

This is the final installment in a three-part series on homelessness by Truthdig columnist Bill Boyarsky.

Logan Siler was driving near Interstate 210 when he spotted the man, who was slender, perhaps in his late 40s and wearing shorts and a blue sweatshirt. His hair was cut short. He was standing alone.

Siler, 31, an outreach worker for Union Station Homeless Services, pulled his van over to the curb. Something about the man indicated homelessness. Siler picked up a bag lunch and a clipboard with a long questionnaire, and he and I walked over toward the man. Siler then motioned to me to step far to the side. He thought the presence of a reporter might scare the man off. Also, Siler didn’t want me to compromise the confidentiality of the conversation he hoped to have

The man accepted the bag lunch, and—won over by Siler’s friendly, unassuming manner—crossed the street with him. Siler knew what he was doing; previously, he had worked with the youths of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

I watched from several feet away, partly concealed by a fence. They sat down on the sidewalk, in the shade of the freeway overpass. Siler talked to the man and filled out the 19-page questionnaire. The man was talkative. The two of them got along well. After a half-hour, they got up, and Siler shook his hand and said goodbye. We went back to the van and drove away. Siler didn’t know how things would work out. The man had seemed a bit unsettled mentally. Later, Rabbi Marvin Gross, Union Station’s CEO, told me that the goal is to put him and others like him into permanent housing.

The task is labor-intensive, beginning with interviewing one person at a time, and it requires perseverance, patience and a willingness to work against all odds.

Outreach workers from other agencies throughout Los Angeles County use the same questionnaire that Siler used. The workers ask dozens of questions about illness, addiction, arrests, years on the street, education, family status and other highly personal topics. I asked Siler why people would answer such questions. “They’re actually a conversation opener,” he said, adding that people on the street often appreciate the attention.

When Siler returned to his office, he entered the information into a countywide database. On a 1-to-10 scale, the homeless are rated on the seriousness of their conditions. Those most at risk for death or serious illness have a better chance of getting housing. As is the case with almost everything these days, data rules.

There are also several kinds of housing. John Maceri of Lamp Community, a longtime Skid Row housing and treatment provider, said his organization maintains laundry and shower facilities and 161 dormitory-style beds on Skid Row as temporary housing. In addition, it has a 38-bed recuperative center and permanent housing, including apartments, elsewhere.

The most popular program of its kind in the Los Angeles area is called Housing First, popularized by Zev Yaroslavsky and others when Yaroslavsky was a Los Angeles County supervisor. It’s based on a theory that if you put homeless people, even ones who are disturbed, in apartments of their own, they will take command of their lives with the help of counselors and medical people from the social service agency sponsoring them. Proponents of the system say the success rate is high.

How do homeless assistance groups find people who need help?

“On the street,” Maceri said, and “in public spaces.” People will also come into the Lamp office asking to have a shower or use the bathroom, he added.

But for every homeless person saved, the Republican-controlled Congress consigns many more to the streets by reducing federal aid for low-rent housing and other services.

Housing for the homeless, either in apartments or group homes, is financed by a bewildering number of federal programs, most of which are losing funding. One crucial federal program, HOME, had been cut by Congress from $1.2 billion to $900 million and then again to $66 million. The homeless languish on waiting lists for months, sometimes years, before getting an apartment paid for by a federal voucher.

“In recent years, Congress has made deep cuts to many programs,” the Center on Budget Priorities and Policy, a progressive Washington research organization, says on its website. “The federal government spends 2.8 times as much on tax subsidies for homeownership—more than half of which benefits households with incomes above $100,000—as on rental assistance.”

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