Photo by Keeley Smith.
On an atypical, cloudy day in downtown Long Beach, Groundworks Fitness guru and community activist Giovanna Ferraro commanded the attention of a small group, nestled in neat rows within the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) on Pine Avenue.
“What if you saw this person on the street?” said Ferraro, pointing to a PowerPoint projection of an anonymous person sitting on a curb. “Nothing? Or maybe a hello? There’s no wrong answer,” she said.
The group debated how one might approach the individual, exploring the variety of initial perceptions regarding the individual, based upon if they had waste around them, a grocery cart, or other items.
The presentation was part of Ferraro’s quest to reach the public and separate fact from fiction when it comes to homelessness—something the public feels is of increasing importance, given the shutting down of a well-known haven for homeless, Lincoln Park.
The last week of October, a fence is scheduled to be erected around the park, as part of construction of the new Civic Center, according to city officials.
“Community leaders are going on social media and perpetuating… these people are perpetuating conversations regarding the issue of homelessness, which turns into a complaint session… such as ‘busloads of homeless people are being dumped into Belmont Shore,’” said Ferraro.
The reality is homelessness is an ongoing issue in Long Beach, and city officials are attuned to that. In fact, Long Beach utilizes the Housing First model as part of its continuum of care, though its housing component doesn’t quite have the scale necessary to house the current number of those who are homeless.
As the Post wrote last week regarding the special study session on homelessness, the rising cost of living in the city, combined with a vacancy rate that’s hovering around two percent citywide and a dwindling list of property owners who are willing to take vouchers designed to help people stay off the streets have all contributed to the mounting issue. During the discussion it was revealed that nearly 500 people have been granted such vouchers—ones that are valid for only six months—and are struggling to find a home.
Temporary and permanent shelter situations in the city are both nearly at capacity and the lack of remaining real estate in the city for affordable housing developments will likely be an ongoing discussion as city leaders try to improve on a Housing First approach that currently lacks the housing portion of its equation.
Ferraro said convincing them of the help available at Long Beach centers is the main challenge for people currently living in Lincoln Park, as well as homeless throughout the city. Getting them to the services provided by the city remains the number one priority, while the city explored the current situation and its ambition to help solve the problem.
At the meeting, Ferraro drew a diagram featuring “homelessness” on one side, “resources” (or, “continuum of care”), on the other, and “community” in the middle.
“Here is the truth,” Ferraro told the Post. “There is outreach going on every day [to bridge this gap]. There has to be an understanding of the homeless community and how it works.”
“It’s been the same outreach for a long time, for years,” said Steve Becotte, a member of the Homeless Services Advisory Committee and the Downtown Long Beach Alliance community outreach manager. “They don’t wear big bright things that say ‘outreach worker.’”
Ferraro pointed out what she sees as a common myth: that all homeless people have mental health issues or substance abuse problems. While this is often true concerning those who are chronically homeless, she said it discounts the number of people who experienced true trauma unrelated to mental health or substance abuse, which resulted in their landing on the street.
“People are disconnected from the community,” she said. “When they see you, they are likely thinking ‘How can I trust you?’”
Long Beach Multi-Service Center Coordinator Elsa Ramos underscored the complications present in any approach to addressing homelessness, as well as the limited resources currently available to address the issue.
The city’s budget for homeless services is approximately $10.9 million, with nearly two-thirds of that ($7.5 million) coming in the form of grants from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
One idea for financing could come in the form of Social Impact Bonds, a type of “pay-for-success” investment that would take the risk off of local government while providing the funding necessary to meet the goals of significantly reducing or eliminating homelessness in the city. Cities such as Denver and Salt Lake City have jumped at the financing opportunity.
Perhaps such ideas could be explored by city officials and the city’s innovation team, in addition to finding ways to attract businesses and create an economic blueprint. As the cost of housing continues to rise and downtown seeks to gentrify, with backing from city officials, it might be appropriate to simultaneously seek innovative ways to help the populations most likely to be priced out.
While the city ponders the current issue, Ferraro said the success stories she sees within the current system largely get lost amid concerns for privacy among those who were formerly homeless.
In anticipation of the fence construction, the city has stepped up its established, coordinated outreach efforts (consisting of Mental Health America, city officials, quality of life officers from the Long Beach Police Department and more) in Lincoln Park, urgently working to gain the trust of the homeless currently inhabiting the area, before they move elsewhere in the city.
“Good things are happening, but it doesn’t mean we know exactly what will happen once the fence goes up,” said Ferraro.