During a blitz of public meetings to start his term, Mayor Rex Richardson has also been meeting behind the scenes this week with small focus groups of residents as he tries to set the agenda for Long Beach’s emergency response to homelessness.

Many of the attendees at the invite-only sessions are frontline nonprofit workers, residents who do their own homeless outreach, or other community leaders, some of whom have been sharply critical of the city’s ability to manage homelessness.

Attendees have, at times, aired grievances but also pushed the city toward new ideas, according to three people invited to a focus group at Bixby Park on Wednesday.

They said most people’s comments carried a dual imperative: The city must speed up housing and shelter projects, such as its slate of tiny homes that may not be completed until the fall. And it must do a better job of finding ongoing help—such as drug treatment and mental health care—after someone is housed.

“Everybody was suggesting that we need to do it now, and we can’t just get (homeless people) off the street and get them a place,” said one of the attendees, who asked not to be named in order to share details of the private discussion.

“If you want people to maintain their housing, you have to provide ongoing case management or support,” something the city has struggled to do, according to another attendee.

The format of the meetings, which include the mayor, local City Council members and some top city staffers, gave those invited the ear of officials guiding Long Beach’s response to homelessness.

Richardson, who would not allow media at the focus groups, said he convened the meetings in the hopes of getting unvarnished personal feedback from people on the front lines of confronting the homelessness crisis.

“It’s not often you get a manageable sort of group conversation with the mayor and the councilmember and all the city leadership there to listen,” he said.

But he said he also hoped to set expectations about what the city can reasonably do.

“What I don’t do is tell people, ‘Hey, we’re about to end homelessness in a month,’ ” he said in an interview Thursday.

Richardson said the city views its homelessness response in three phases:

  • In the short-term window of the next six months, Richardson said the city is going to be looking for more temporary places for people to take shelter or park cars they’re living in while boosting its outreach efforts to people living on the streets in encampments.
  • In the medium term of six months to 24 months, Richardson said they’ll be looking at more systemic fixes to support people in housing. “And in that time, the types of things you’ll see are standing up additional supports like mental health, localized mental health, substance support, bringing in more direct engagement with regional partners like the county.” One of the goals in time will be finding a permanent place for the city’s winter shelter, which has historically opened late each year as officials search for a new location annually.
  • After 24 months, the city will be focused on tackling long-term permanent problems that it will likely be grappling with in perpetuity, Richardson said. “That’s when you start thinking more like prevention. You think about housing of all income levels—from your permanent supportive housing and very, very low-income housing, to like workforce housing and things like that.”

One frontline worker in Wednesday’s meeting said she had little faith the city could deliver on this plan, saying the only new ideas were coming from attendees, not local officials.

“We all offered things that we needed. The mayor offered nothing,” she said.

Another attendee was more optimistic, saying the city has already significantly boosted its homelessness outreach programs with things like mobile service vans that roam the city. He said the mayor seemed genuine in taking feedback at the focus group, but the daunting task will be figuring out how to implement it.

The chasm between hearing, understanding and doing something, he said, “is what tends to be the big challenge.”

City prepares to sweep homeless encampments near LA River

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.