Names of individuals have been changed for their privacy.
I urged Avery to gather his belongings—a tent, a gym bag of clothes, and disintegrating grocery bags—as thirty-one police vehicles sped by with a dozen officers in full riot gear hanging off the side. The Center, a non-profit homeless services hub where I work, sits a short block away from Hollywood Blvd. Thousands had gathered there to protest the murder of George Floyd, which had taken place just days earlier. The police had selected The Center’s home, the less-conspicuous Selma Avenue, to stage their response. As the afternoon wore on, I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, but Avery had been uneasy all day.
Avery had been matched to a hotel under the new state initiative “Project Roomkey.” California had released funding for its cities to master-lease hotels, otherwise vacant because of COVID-19, as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness considered especially vulnerable to the virus – due to age and/or pre-existing health condition(s). The program was enthusiastically embraced in Los Angeles, targeting 15,000 unhoused Angelenos for placement.
After all was said and done, though, only 6,000 rooms were acquired. As it turns out, although hundreds of hotels took financial handouts from the City of Los Angeles to mitigate their losses, many decided it would adversely impact their brand to accept these particular guests. For its part, the city lacked the fortitude to make participation in the initiative a condition of accepting the stimulus. Experiencing this in real time, knowing the names and stories of many of the 9,000 vulnerable people who wouldn’t get a room, my mind went often to Isaiah 5:
“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
‘Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.’”
These larger machinations were far from my mind that day in Hollywood. No matter how many rooms there were or weren’t, Avery would be getting one of them . . . if we could get him to go. When we broke the news the day before that he’d been matched, he was ecstatic, promising to be at our gate the next morning, ready to go, “with bells on.” Today, though, at the worst possible time, he was having second thoughts.
When we met in the morning to discuss transportation to the hotel, he told me he didn’t want the room anymore. Having worked in this field as many years as I have, and knowing Avery for all of them, I knew this wasn’t necessarily a final answer. So often when services are offered to people experiencing homelessness, timing is everything. Not only do the services actually have to be desirable, but they have to be offered in the right way, at the right time, and by the right person. Change of any kind takes patience.
Balancing a trauma-informed approach with the urgency of this opportunity, I waited a couple hours before asking again. Again, he said no. After waiting another hour he still said no, but this time he asked me a couple questions about the hotel: “You said the rooms are private?” “Can you show me the picture again?” Something was shifting. Light was creeping in.
COVID-19 had been raging for a couple months, and it seemed like any moment it would infiltrate the homeless population and spread like wildfire. Months later, we’ve come to see that it never really did, and can only speculate as to the reasons. Certainly, local efforts like Project Roomkey, as well as COVID testing performed by outreach teams like The Center’s played a role. It also may come now to the nature of the virus and what we know of its spread. People living isolated and outdoors are uniquely situated to avoid catching COVID-19.
But although unhoused people are largely not dying of COVID, deaths among people experiencing homeless have skyrocketed during COVID-19. In fact, the same conditions diminishing the virus’s impact—isolation, living outside—are proving lethal as the rest of the world has become more insulated. Public parks and libraries have been shuttered. Volunteer-run food and clothing resources have dried up. Restaurants and coffee shops that may have offered refuge before are only “pick-up” now. Poorly phrased “Safer at Home” orders must have especially stung for the 60,000 “home-less.”
Noon arrived, and Avery finally said yes. I left him to finish packing, but when I returned 30 minutes later, the doubt had crept back in. “No, thank you,” he told me, “but I just can’t do it.” He had spent decades on the streets, been in and out of program after program. Why would this one be any different?
I needed backup. Avery’s friend Paul, who had been matched to a room at the same hotel but a much later intake, was nearby killing time and waiting for his transportation. I called the site to let them know what I had in mind, then approached Paul and filled him in on Avery. Then I pitched him my plan.
“Paul, what if I sent you and Avery together in an Uber?” (Our COVID policies did not allow us to transport clients ourselves, and certainly not multiple at a time in our vehicles.) Paul agreed, and we presented the plan to Avery. The tension in his shoulders released as a wave of relief came over him. “Okay. Let’s do it.”
“Housing First” is a methodology for ending homelessness that has been around for decades, but still remains largely under-practiced. If you can move people indoors and provide a sense of safety and shelter, addressing the root causes of someone’s homelessness becomes much easier. When a person feels safe and secure, so many other things can fall into place. Your case managers know where to find you instead of having to drive around looking for you. You can get medical and mental health care more easily, keep your prescriptions behind your locked door, and get regular sleep. You have an address to put on job applications and a bathroom to get cleaned up in. Many cities and even countries have effectively ended homelessness using a more robust and evidence-based version of this model.
The primary reason we don’t practice this approach on a universal scale is because, frankly, we aren’t convinced that people experiencing homelessness deserve it. Contrary to what you might think, Housing First is actually cheaper than our current approach. The amount of money we spend policing, jailing, hospitalizing, and cleaning up after people experiencing homelessness is vastly higher than the cost of housing them with wrap-around case management. Certainly, there would be bureaucratic hurdles and community resistance if we were to truly embrace this approach, but those are challenges we could address if we wanted to.
Instead, we perpetuate myths about homelessness that embolden our stance against policy that will set them free. We stay secure in our implicit and explicit beliefs that certain people have opted out of deserving our compassion. But I am reminded of Romans 2:4, that “God’s kindness leads us to repentance.” Meaningful change and transformation in anyone’s life always begins with grace; and grace is, by definition, uninterested in whether or not we deserve it.
The car arrived and took Paul and Avery, together, to their temporary home. I jumped in my car and sped out of Hollywood to avoid being trapped by blocked-off streets and escalating unrest. I would later watch news coverage of the protests and see that the police had commandeered The Center’s parking lot to stage their basecamp, mere feet from where Avery’s tent had been.
Paul and Avery were given adjacent rooms. When I checked on Avery the next week, he thanked me over and over again for “making” him go. I reminded him that it was all his doing; that all I did was give him enough space and time to work up the courage he needed. So often, that’s all people need: someone who knows them, knows how to ask the question, knows when to press and when to back off, and is committed to sticking it out with them until the “right” opportunity falls into place.
COVID-19 has amplified these realities more than it has created them. A study conducted by the California Healthline based on LA County Coroner-Medical Examiner records in 2018 assessed life expectancy for people experiencing homelessness to be fifty years of age, more than twenty years below that of housed individuals. Homelessness is, in many ways, a death sentence, and was before COVID-19. But as with so many of our societal ills—such as income inequality, the cost of health care, and systemic racism—COVID-19 did not create the crisis, but certainly magnified it.
Our response to the homelessness crisis during the pandemic may light the way for how to continue addressing it once the threat of the virus has passed. We are experiencing in real time what it might have taken decades to build the courage to try. In this there is hope, even if it feels late. So many have been advocating for these proven solutions for years, and how many have we lost in the waiting?
My prayer is that we learn to listen to our neighbors experiencing homelessness earnestly, early, and patiently; that we become better practitioners of grace, recognizing and responding to the needs of the vulnerable long before they become dire. I pray for resilience and protection for all those who have waited so long for salvation and will wait longer; and for those for whom it was too late, we pray for forgiveness.
For Paul, who is already back on the streets because he wasn’t ready; for Avery, who just graduated from Project Roomkey and into his own apartment; and for everyone else on their first, second, or hundredth chance, we pray.