In Los Angeles, with our homeless crisis growing worse by the day, we can get hundreds of people off the street and into housing in the next couple days — but we refuse to.
We are housing more people than ever in Los Angeles, but not nearly as quickly as people are becoming homeless. The pathways into homelessness are big, varied, and fast-moving. But the pathways out of homelessness are few, narrow, and move far too slowly. As long as that’s the case, this crisis will worsen, people will die, and our neighborhoods will deteriorate.
For more than a decade, the primary response to homelessness in Los Angeles has been permanent supportive housing (PSH), generally a single unit for a chronically homeless individual in a facility that provides long-term services. PSH is a phenomenally successful model with a 96% success rate, but it is not the appropriate solution for everyone, which is good news because PSH is expensive and slow to build.
There are other models that can get people off the streets within a few days, and for a fraction of the cost. The one I have been championing for years is shared housing, where homeless people live together as a group, often in a single-family home, sharing a bedroom with a roommate.
Shared housing has been successful for years, and there are various models. Flyaway Homes and The People Concern are pioneering low-cost shared housing in shipping containers. The Culver-City based SHARE! the Self-Help And Recovery Exchange (SHARE!), has been getting people off the streets quickly since 2005 with a model of shared housing called Shared Recovery Housing — a nationally-recognized and evidence-based treatment. Steven and Regina Weller, former LAPD chaplains, moved dozens of people from the encampments in Venice into SHARE! housing within a matter of days.
As a solution to homelessness, shared housing is different than other models. It does not require long waits for government-approved vouchers; residents pool costs and cover the rent through SSI or disability benefits, or by getting a job. It does not rely on agencies to provide services; shared recovery housing is largely self-managed, with the support of people who are formerly homeless (“peer bridgers”), and residents are encouraged to attend self-help groups. Instead of living alone, roommates form a sense of community and help each transition back into the mainstream.
In 2016, I funded a shared housing pilot project in Venice. I awarded SHARE! a $50,000 grant and asked them to house as many people as they could within six months with their “shared recovery housing” model. Within four months, SHARE! housed 32 people and created 107 new beds. In a report on the pilot program to our Homeless & Poverty Committee last year, residents of shared recovery housing, owners of shared recovery housing, and SHARE! staffers made an impressive presentation and laid out the case for additional city funding to house people not in months or years, but in days or weeks. They proposed hiring more staff and then housing 100 people per council district for $1 million per district.
That’s a wise investment for Los Angeles to make. Even if the program failed and only housed, hypothetically, four people for $1 million, it would have housed twice as many people than if we spent that money on two units of PSH.
Even though shared housing is part of the city’s Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy, government bureaucracy has stymied attempts to adequately fund it. Upstart programs threaten the status quo. Shared housing doesn’t fit neatly into traditional government funding streams. Shared housing advocates do not have the vocal support of developers and foundations, which focus on PSH. Officials warn that shared housing is unproven, and is not how we have usually addressed homelessness.
Yes, there are risks to trying anything new and different. But we are experiencing a crisis of epic proportions, and unless we do things more quickly, more creatively, and less expensively, homeless will continue to grow.
In a time of crisis, being risk-averse is being solutions-averse. If we do not try programs that can get people off the street tonight, we are choosing to keep people homeless — and that’s unacceptable.