'Housing first'

Homelessness declines in Pasadena thanks to focus on providing short- and long-term housing

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 5/30/2019

The number of homeless individuals in Pasadena decreased by 20 percent this year compared to 2018, according to the 2019 Homeless Count Report released on May 20 by the city of Pasadena’s Housing Department, the Pasadena Partnership to End Homelessness and Urban Initiatives.

The annual count is a one-night snapshot of those living in unsheltered locations and temporary shelters. This year’s count was conducted on the evening of Jan. 22 into the early morning of Jan. 23, 2019, and tallied 542 people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena, compared to 677 in 2018. That makes 2019 the second lowest year since the count began in 1992, after only 2016, when 530 people were counted.

Homelessness in Pasadena has generally been on a decline since 2011, when 1,216 people were counted (except for an uptick the last two years). In 2011, the city and homeless services providers implemented a new approach: housing first, as opposed to clearing up personal issues and then being placed into a home. And city officials and homeless advocates say that approach is highly successful.

“Permanent supportive housing is the only thing that ends homelessness,” said William Huang, the city’s housing director, during a panel on homelessness at the West Pasadena Residents’ Association’s annual meeting on May 8.

Officer Donovan Jones of the Pasadena Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation (HOPE) team and Shawn Morrissey, Union Station Homeless Service’s director of advocacy and community engagement, also served on the panel.

The Solution

“It took us over 40 years to figure out that the solution for homelessness is an actual home, but we finally did and that’s where our effort is now: to get people into housing,” said Morrissey. “During the early periods of homeless services, all we had to offer people were shelters. We didn’t have housing solutions, just temporary solutions. We became dependent on the massive shelter system we built in LA.”

Morrissey, originally from Montreal, had been homeless himself for a long time starting in his late 30s when he “washed up in Pasadena” in 2002, as he put it. He was an opiate addict from age 12 to 40, but after he received support and housing from Union Station, he was able to turn his life around.

“I showed up with two black eyes, my head was split open, I had no underwear and I was wearing one contact and it wasn’t even mine,” said Morrissey. “You’d see me on the street, I’d be wild-eyed, wild-haired. My success is a result of these types of services and community that wrapped around me. As soon as people get into housing, they’re no longer homeless.”

He said that it’s very challenging to provide services for people while they’re living on the street, but getting a roof over their head and four walls around them has a stabilizing effect and allows them to attend to many of the issues that led to their homelessness to begin with.

“Not only is permanent supportive housing humane and the right thing to do, it has a huge cost savings and helps both the individual and the community,” Morrissey said. “It’s actually $15,000 to $20,000 cheaper to help someone get into permanent supportive housing than it is to walk by them on the street.”

The city’s strategies to address homelessness include funding and working with partners that provide basic homeless services, rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and targeted homeless prevention.

Rapid rehousing is short-term assistance for people who are not chronically homeless — those with a disabling condition who have been homeless for more than a year — but recently became homeless for economic reasons.

“We’re seeing people becoming homeless for the first time in their lives,” said Huang. “A lot of them are being priced out of their homes through raised rents, or low-income retired people.”

Permanent supportive housing is typically an apartment unit for those considered chronically homeless. Huang said there is a misperception among the public that the development of more permanent supportive housing in their neighborhood will cause crime rates to go up and property values to go down.

“The safety level is actually enhanced because the person who is housed and is now stable is far less likely to commit crimes,” he said. “Barbara King, a local realtor, looked at property values around the three permanent supportive housing developments we have in Pasadena and found that nobody’s property values went down because the supportive housing developments were well designed and well maintained.”

However, just because officials now know housing is the solution doesn’t mean they have enough housing available.

“There’s a real bottleneck to building more housing,” said Huang. “There’s also a disincentive for landlords even with rental vouchers, because it’s simpler and they get more money when they rent units out at market rate. We need to get more units, either by building them or through willing landlords. It’s a big ask, we realize that, so we do have financial incentives for them if they’re willing to do it.”

Huang said the good news is that the city will be receiving new homeless funding soon from the county and the state. They plan to use that money to get more rapid and supportive housing, hire more housing navigators and case managers, expand prevention efforts, enhance landlord incentives, distribute more motel vouchers and provide more job development.

Pay It Forward

In 2011, homeless advocates in Pasadena launched the inaugural “Housing First” initiative called Project House Pasadena, aimed at housing the 20 most vulnerable and severely chronically homeless individuals — those at risk of dying within a year if they stayed on the streets. One of those 20 people was Dorothy Edwards.

Edwards was born in Monrovia and grew up in Hacienda Heights. After moving from program to program trying to get off drugs, she became homeless in Pasadena, partly to escape a domestic violence situation. She lived with her dog Gunner on the embankment of the Foothill (210) Freeway behind Target in east Pasadena and on a sofa in the donations area of Goodwill on Altadena Drive and Foothill Boulevard, among other places.

Morrissey and others made several attempts to contact Edwards to give her a housing voucher but she hid from them. Seven years ago, Morrissey caught up with her, made a connection, built trust and convinced her to give supportive housing a try. After using cocaine, meth and heroin intravenously for 24 years, she has now been sober for several years and helps others in the position she used to be in. She said housing and employment were the turning point for her.

Edwards went through an advocacy training program at the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), a community development financial institution that empowers those with lived experiences to speak about homelessness to policymakers. She now sits on CSH’s national board of directors and works at Housing Works as an enrichment services coordinator in a 54-unit supportive services and special needs building in Eagle Rock.

“When you’re homeless for a long time you feel like you’re less than and not enough, but Bill Huang and Shawn Morrissey always made me feel welcome,” said Edwards. “I’m really a stronger person today because of all the encouragement I had. It’s important what I’m doing, my voice is important and I know in my heart that I’ve found my passion. Now I want to pay it forward and help those who are still on the street.”

Morrissey said they’ve housed hundreds of people in the past few years with a 97 percent retention rate.

Work to Do

While the 2019 Homeless Count Report found that progress has been made among key subpopulations such as youth, veterans and families with children, it also found that more people are experiencing chronic homelessness, accounting for 50 percent of the total homeless population.

Additionally, 58 percent of those counted were Pasadena residents before they became homeless and only 5 percent first became homeless outside of LA County or out of state, “largely refuting the misconception that people experiencing homelessness travel from other areas and across the nation,” reads the report.

The homeless population is also aging. The data reveal that three in 10 people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena are aged 55 years or older. There were 23 families with children experiencing homelessness in Pasadena, but there were no unsheltered families with children on the night of the count, compared to eight families in 2018.

Huang identified several things anyone can do to help homeless individuals: refer them to services through websites like LA-HOP.org; get educated by reading the Homeless Count Report; donate to the nine orange parking meters around the city that are part of the Real Change Movement designed by ArtCenter College of Design; engage landlords to consider renting units to homeless individuals; and volunteer with organizations that serve the homeless such as Union Station, Friends in Deed, Foothill Unity Center and many others.

“We’re never going to end this problem, but Pasadena is uniquely positioned to ostensibly end this problem as it exists today with the political will, the infrastructure, and the robust services that we have,” said Morrissey. “What’s really going to turn the tide is getting the appropriate information out to the community in order to tear down some of these myths and stigmas and help people see there really is a solution here: developing or making housing available for people.”