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Community project gets dozens of Hollywood's homeless off the streets

A pilot program started by local volunteers, businesses and aid workers has provided housing and social services for 37 of the area's most vulnerable homeless, and 34 more will get housing soon.

May 22, 2011|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • John Watkins and his dog, Capone, are enjoying their new apartment. Watkins had been homeless for over a decade, living in a camp in the Hollywood hills.
John Watkins and his dog, Capone, are enjoying their new apartment. Watkins… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

They call him the "Godfather."

For 14 years, John Watkins held supreme authority over the homeless encampments deep in the Hollywood hills. So it was with some trepidation that volunteers armed with clipboards picked their way up a rugged trail to his mountain hideaway one morning, hoping he would answer questions about his health and housing situation.

Their goal: to identify and find homes for the 20 people at greatest risk of early death if left on the streets of Hollywood.

Organizers of the grass-roots effort had no money lined up to help those they interviewed. But they hoped that by putting names and faces to some of the most vulnerable residents, they could get the community to rally to help. A year later, the early results are promising. Thirty-seven chronically homeless people are in apartments; 34 others are expected to be housed within weeks, and more than $800,000 has been raised to sustain the effort.

Photos: Helping the Hollywood homeless

"When you pull the veil of anonymity away and reveal who these human beings are, resources appear," said Kerry Morrison, who heads two local business-improvement districts and has been the driving force behind the campaign.

At a time when governments are stretched, homeless advocates say the Hollywood effort exemplifies what communities can achieve when they pool resources and prioritize those in greatest need. Similar initiatives in Santa Monica, Venice, West Hollywood, Glendale, Van Nuys, Long Beach and downtown's skid row have put permanent roofs over the heads of more than 600 of Los Angeles County's most hard-core homeless, according to figures collected by the New York-based nonprofit Common Ground.

The chronically homeless — those who have been on the streets a year or longer and suffer from at least one disabling condition — represent just a quarter of the estimated 48,000 county residents who are homeless on any given day. But they account for about three-quarters of homelessness-related public spending. By getting the costliest street dwellers housed, officials hope to free up resources for other homeless people.

Hollywood's project was forged out of a rancorous backlash to a four-story, 70-unit "campus of hope" for low-income and homeless people being built just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Residents fought the project for years, fearing it would import skid row headaches to Hollywood. "Several of us realized that we have a lot of educating to do," Morrison said, including documenting Hollywood's own homelessness problem.

Representatives of Hollywood businesses, social service groups, churches and local government began meeting three years ago and set an ambitious objective: ending homelessness in the area by 2018. Inspiration for the campaign came from Project 50, a $3.6-million Los Angeles County pilot program that initially targeted skid row's 50 most at-risk street dwellers.

That population faces serious mental, physical and substance abuse issues. Older programs would have required them to get treated before being provided permanent homes. But project advocates say it is unrealistic to expect people to show up to appointments when they don't have a stable place to live. So Project 50 participants were immediately housed and given access to an array of social and therapeutic services. Morrison was told that the county could not afford to replicate Project 50 in Hollywood. But she and other volunteers pressed ahead to identify the homeless and rank them according to vulnerability. They used a model developed by Common Ground, which is leading an effort to house 100,000 homeless people nationwide.

"There are those who say it really is almost irresponsible to do a homeless registry when you don't have housing lined up to help the people," Morrison said. "But we just felt as though if we didn't move forward we'd be out there waiting for years."

The effort grew to include dozens of volunteers who fanned out over three days to survey every homeless person they could find in the hills, streets, alleys and parking lots.

The Godfather proved a disarming host. Dressed in military fatigues, he offered Morrison a chair and politely answered her questions.

A 59-year-old Army veteran, he made a living for a time in construction but suffered debilitating injuries, including a broken back that left him on welfare. He said he became homeless when his apartment was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He tried living in a condemned building but said police harassed him for squatting. So he retreated to the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, where he built his "hooch" out of tarps, cables, poles and wooden pallets. "It was my safe haven," he said.

In the summer, he could hear concerts. When the bowl closed, he would collect bags of discarded hot dogs and pretzels to share with a couple dozen people camping in the hills, many of them in their teens and 20s.

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