While the city’s homeless population swells and residents call upon their local government to better address the situation, the Long Beach City Council conducted a study session last night to assess the city’s past efforts to reduce homelessness and to brainstorm future strategies that local agencies might employ.
Homelessness and how to solve it is perhaps one of the most multifaceted issues, as it has many causes and no singular solution works for everyone experiencing it. Experts list a litany of contributing factors, including but not limited to domestic violence, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse and abandonment, especially in the LGBT community. Last night, the discussion was aimed at how the city might better serve individuals who are on the streets deal with their own situations to possibly get their lives back on track.
Mayor Robert Garcia started the evening by addressing the packed council chambers by reminding those in attendance that the situation has no easy fix. He said that resolving what some have called a homeless crisis in the city will not only take creativity, but compassion.
“Every single homeless person has a name, Garcia said. “All of them, at one point in their lives, had dreams about what would happen in their future. They all have parents, they all want to have a better life and they’re all individual people.”
The nearly four hour session included a presentation from the city’s director of health and human services and a Homeless Services officer from the health department, in which they outlined the department’s budget and its recent successes.
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.
This money is what the city has to help people find housing, help provide vouchers so they can afford housing and direct people toward mental illness treatment among other things. According to the city’s most recent biennial homeless count from January 2015, Long Beach had over 2,300 people in some phase of homelessness.
Kelly Colopy, the department’s director, said that participants at recent community meetings expressed that the city had not done enough to combat the rise in homelessness, a notion city officials took exception to.
“The city teams work tirelessly every day to respond to calls and to house people. We are one of the few cities in California that address homelessness in such a comprehensive way,” Colopy said. “Most other cities are just trying to figure it out. There just aren’t enough city staff or enough funding to meet the community’s expectations. If the expectation is that it’s up to the city for it to change, it will take a while because we’ll have to generate those resources on our own.”
Finding a way to raise funds and expand the budget for the city’s homeless services could be a step in the right direction. The city currently has two full-time officers to respond to what Colopy estimated to be about 100 requests for outreach per month. She said these officers often times must make multiple contacts to the same people before meaningful progress can be made.
But the deficiencies aren’t limited to the department’s budget.
Currently, just 14 beds are available for detox programs that must be shared by agencies in the county, making it difficult to get people who want help into rehabilitation programs. And while the city has achieved “functional zero” among its veteran homeless population, it’s seen an increase in homeless youth, with a recent report estimating that nearly one in 10 students at Cal State Long Beach are homeless.
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 100 percent occupied 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.
That idea was touched upon by Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga, who candidly noted the definition of homelessness was in fact “no home,” and that the city needed to do its part to find roofs to put over these people’s heads.
“When you’ve got a two percent vacancy rate, there’s not going to be much out there,” Uranga said. “You can have an increase in vouchers but if there’s no housing available...we can give all the vouchers we want but there’s not going to be any use for them.”
It was stated from the outset of the session that fighting homelessness can’t just be the responsibility of a government agency or a few well-intentioned residents, but must be a community effort. Mentoring and donating time with at-risk youth and providing jobs locally could help keep young people off the streets, and sponsoring families moving off the streets with donated furniture or clothes for job interviews were also listed as ways residents could contribute to helping break the cycle of homelessness.
“When you see someone struggling, connect,” Colopy said. “The community can help in so many ways in our great city and when we start out by working together it really gets everyone back on track to success, and then we hopefully won't see people coming back.”