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Helping the homeless isn't just for the holidays

Shelters and soup kitchens are often overbooked with helpers on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but assistance is needed every day of the year.

November 23, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Church volunteers from Riverside greet Pops, a blind homeless man who lives along 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles. A task force is working on a plan to end chronic homelessness in Los Angeles by 2016.
Church volunteers from Riverside greet Pops, a blind homeless man who lives… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Every year around now, I get requests from people who want a recommendation on where to volunteer at a soup kitchen, emergency shelter or housing facility on Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I appreciate these good intentions, and so will the people who benefit. But there are 363 days in the year besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, which happen to be the only two days when there's plenty of extra help. If you're interested, I've got a suggestion on how you can make a more meaningful contribution to thousands of desperately needy people in what is often referred to as the homeless capital of the United States.

Get on your computer and go to http://www.HomeForGoodLA.com. There you'll find details of a plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2016, with information on how you can donate to the cause or volunteer at a number of human service agencies any time of year.

I know. If you're like me, you're more than a tad skeptical of plans to "end homelessness," because we've heard it all before. And it will be increasingly difficult to solve the problem as more military servicemen and women bring the war home and struggle with stress disorders.

So why is there cause for optimism this time?

Don't get me wrong: It's not going to be easy. But instead of the usual patchwork attempts to get people off the streets, this effort is uniting groups that aren't always known for working together. The business community is taking the lead, but they're bringing in public officials from across the region as well as letting ordinary citizens know how they can do more than carve a turkey.

"I was one of those people who on Thanksgiving would take her kids down to a soup kitchen to prepare food, and I'd never seen any sustainable solution. It frustrates the heck out of me," said Renee Fraser, who joined the board of Volunteers of America to try to make a more lasting difference. Now Fraser, who owns a communications and advertising company, is co-chair of Home for Good's Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness.

The task force is a joint initiative of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, and the campaign has pulled off what constitutes a minor miracle in Los Angeles. It has managed to break through the dysfunctional relationships among various politicians and government agencies to build support for its plan.

A few weeks ago, I was asked by the task force to speak to a business group called the Young Presidents Organization at a Westside breakfast meeting. I was there to tell the story of how I met Nathaniel Anthony Ayers almost seven years ago, and how, with the help of Lamp Community and the support of Los Angeles Times readers, Mr. Ayers joined the ranks of the formerly homeless. For six years now, Mr. Ayers has been housed at a Volunteers of America facility in downtown L.A. and watched over by Lamp.

After I spoke, Jerold B. Neuman stepped to the podium. He's with the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, and he's been Fraser's co-chair on the task force since 2009. Neuman's involvement in this cause goes back to 2004, when he was driving through Hollywood with his 4-year-old son, who asked what all those people were doing huddled on the street. Neuman told him they were homeless. His son needed an explanation but still didn't understand.

"Where do they sleep?" asked the boy.

At the breakfast meeting, Neuman spoke about the madness of a system that was set up to manage homelessness rather than produce solutions. He said it can be more expensive to leave someone on the street, subject to constant churning through hospitals and detention, than to house them. Three-quarters of the $875 million spent on homeless services went to one-quarter of the population without solving their problems, he told the group.

You could get much more bang for the buck, Neuman said, if you took the 12,000 most chronically homeless veterans and others, many of whom have serious physical and mental issues, and provided housing and services that could substantially change their lives. Neuman explained that task force members discussed all of this — and the need to overcome NIMBYism and scatter housing around the region — with local leaders. But they also flew east to meet with federal health and housing officials for support.

And the reaction?

Neuman said the feds laughed at the suggestion that much progress could be made in a place where politics, ego and competing authority often get in the way. For instance, the county controls many services for the homeless and mentally ill, but the city controls housing, and bridging these divisions has been a problem even for well-intended public officials. It doesn't help that L.A. politicians have been known to stew over things like who gets introduced first at public gatherings.

Neuman and Fraser were unwilling to accept that kind of nonsense.

"When business people get involved in a discussion with politicians," said Fraser, a social psychologist by training, "we don't take no for an answer."

To date, task force members have contributed thousands of volunteer hours bringing all parties together and researching better models in other cities. Roughly 140 county and city officials have now committed to aligning their resources to support the task force plan.

In 2011 alone, Home for Good is on track to have helped house 2,000 veterans and chronically homeless people, and the goal is to house 10,000 more by 2016. In the current phase, Home for Good is trying to raise $5 million in private donations, to be combined with $35 million in public funds.

So you can visit the soup kitchen tomorrow, which would be perfectly lovely. Or you could step up another way, if you're so inclined.

Either way, Happy Thanksgiving.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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