October 10, 2000 - From the October, 2000 issue

L.A.'s 84,000 Homeless Have an Ally: LAHSA's Msgr. Vadakin

At 84,000 on any given night, L.A.'s metropolitan homeless population is a city within a city. The difference is, this one has no houses. As the former Pastor of St. Vibiana's Cathedral and now a commissioner for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Monsignor Royale Vadakin has worked with great tenacity and compassion to secure a better quality of life for those without a political voice. TPR is pleased to turn the spotlight on our streets in this interview with the Monsignor. He speaks of LAHSA's unique origins, its mission, and its role regarding the homeless, as well as the difficult intersections of the homeless with other interests, including welfare reform.


Msgr. Royale Vadakin

In December of 1993, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Mayor and City Council of L.A. created the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Monsignor, as a member of the LAHSA Commission, can you describe for our readers why there is need for such an authority? What are its responsibilities?

From 1987 to 1993 the City and County of Los Angeles were involved in fairly acrimonious litigation over the responsibility to care for the homeless. Ultimately, the federal government warned both entities that federal monies might not be forthcoming should they not be able to resolve the conflict. So the conflict was resolved through a joint powers authority (JPA) agreement, which created the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.

The really wonderful thing about being a member of LAHSA is that we are actually the result of a conflict in which two government entities created a separate, self-standing agency. So instead of spending money on lawsuits, we're now able to work on caring for the homeless.

And what experience prepares you for membership on this commission?

For six years I lived on Skid Row as the Pastor of St. Vibiana's Cathedral on the corner of 2nd and Main. I was also a board member and treasurer of SRO Inc., which managed 14 single-room occupancy hotels in the Downtown area, serving a low-income and homeless population. I think that both living and working in that community gave me some degree of experience with homeless issues.

Earlier this year the L.A. City Council formed an Affordable Housing Crisis Task Force, which issued a detailed report that included bold recommendations to fundamentally alter the City's ability to provide such housing. Has LAHSA responded to that report and its recommendations?

Not directly. Our concerns are more centered around emergency and temporary shelter, such as the Cold and Wet Weather Program and the access centers for those homeless who are both mentally disabled and suffer drug addiction. We also have a concentrated attempt to keep people from falling into the homeless population.

But as far as actually creating permanent housing, I don't think we've made much of an impact.

LAHSA distributes between $45 and $60 million of public funds to about 80 agencies and more than 120 programs throughout the City and County, based on HUD's Continuum of Care model. How are these funds being allocated?

The Continuum of Care, which HUD is wisely concerned about, has four components: 1) Outreach; 2) Emergency shelter and services; 3) Transitional housing and supportive services; and 4) Permanent housing. And I admit we've been more successful and involved in the first three.

LAHSA did receive a grant in the neighborhood of $1 million from the Bank of America Foundation for permanent housing, and we've directed those monies towards the creation of permanent housing. We have a limited focused involvement with permanent housing for disabled persons, but thus far, our main concern has been in the other three dimensions of the Continuum of Care.

The homeless historically have been highly resistant to service entities run by the government or the church. What's LAHSA's strategy for reaching the Skid Row population now living on our streets?

Let me give you one example-the Downtown Drop-In Center. This center is designed to respond to what's commonly called the ‘shelter-resistant' or the hard-core homeless population, many of whom live in encampments in the Skid Row area of Downtown.

The Drop-In operates 24/7 on San Julian Street between 6th and 7th in a very impacted area of L.A. It's high tolerance-for example, you can be under the influence of alcohol and come in. Or you can be high on drugs and come in. Our intent with this creative program is to make an outreach to a very resistant type of homeless person.

The Center provides services such as eight-hour respite beds, showers, storage, case management, and counseling. In the beginning, we thought we'd serve perhaps 200 people a day. But we're now serving over 900 people a day-and reaching some of the most impacted in the homeless population.

Has there been much of an impact on the homeless of L.A. as a result of welfare reform? If so, what?

That's always very difficult to measure. The homeless population is probably between 80,000 and 84,000 people a night in the City and County of L.A., and we certainly don't see any significant decrease in that number. However, what we do see-tragically-is a decrease in the age of the homeless population as well as more homeless families, both of which are somewhat chilling. That's one of the reasons we're trying to fund a program called the "Rent to Prevent Eviction." If we can prevent people from becoming homeless-especially in that period where a one-time rent assistance would keep them from losing their housing-we are much more effective.

Help our readers understand what LAHSA's five-year strategic plan entails and how it relates to this chilling set of facts.

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LAHSA is primarily a pass-through agency, so a large part of our mission is to sustain other agencies. We do some monitoring, but we don't directly provide services.

So we're very interested in new programs in areas of the City and County that have not been served well because of inadequate funding. How can we provide funding for new agencies, perhaps with a more creative response? And how can we continue to support projects that have been successful? It's a cutting edge issue among both the agencies that are trying to secure funding for new programs and the agencies that have existed for a long time.

The answer to that is one thing: More money. The $60 million we have is totally inadequate for the size of the homeless population in L.A. We need to do a much better job of lobbying, recruiting and influencing especially HUD.

Monsignor, given the chilling facts you've just described, what explains the absence of any discussion of affordable housing in the Presidential or Mayoralty debates to date?

Well, the homeless population is not exactly a warm and fuzzy population.

It has some very difficult dimensions, especially for the businesses in the Central City East, for example, where there's a toy manufacturing and a frozen food industry, among others. The tremendous concentration of homeless is certainly not an asset to business. And the dual-diagnosis of both mental health and drugs and alcohol among a significant number of homeless also makes it a difficult population.

In addition, it doesn't have a great deal of political power. The homeless population is not a voting population. We even have difficulties making sure that the homeless people are counted in the census. It's simply a population that is not always responded to.

If the issue did come up in the debates-Presidential or local-how would it be framed? What would you expect the responses to be?

If the debates were to involve Tipper Gore, the issue would certainly come up because Mrs. Gore has had a substantial personal interest in the homeless, for which I am most thankful.

The issues are so intricately connected with so many other areas. They're connected with safety-for example, the City is now considering a criminalization of public defecation and urination, which is undoubtedly a health problem for all of us. But we can't make that a law if we can't supply adequate facilities. San Francisco and other cities have made public toilets available that are self-cleaning and based on a European model. And they've been quite effective. Public urination and defecation is certainly another thing that makes people say, "Let's just have the homeless population go away. They're annoying."

But these issues of public safety and economics have to be interrelated with a sense of compassion. That's going to take not only a political person, but a person with a tremendous amount of compassion and a very developed sense of justice in the sharing of good things. It's amazing that certain parts of our City-which is presented as a world city-more resemble a Third World country.

Monsignor, what is your assessment of how well our ecumenical institutions are doing in the absence of meaningful government support to address the issues we're discussing today?

There are a number of groups that are doing very good work. While I must say I don't always agree with the approach, there are many bible-based Evangelical and Pentecostal groups who run mission outreaches in the Downtown area. Although I might not feel that people should be required to pray to eat, those groups have provided many programs that no one else has. Individual groups have done outreach in providing services, food, and sometimes even shelter. Often times, they're religious individuals, not so much connected with institutions.

While the religious community can certainly help, it cannot be the main stream of assistance for the homeless. The amount of money necessary to provide these programs is simply too large, and the religious community is involved in too many other things, from education to other social services. It has to come from government moneys. To overstate the religious community's ability to address the homeless challenge is to avoid placing the responsibility where it actually rests.

Lastly, how should we evaluate LAHSA a year from now? What benchmark should be used to judge the success of this public effort?

Have we been able to continue to respond to HUD's Continuum of Care? Have we been able to provide homeless services, perhaps in some of the service provider areas (SPA) that haven't been well served? And, have we been faithful to organizations that have long histories with good results, but at the same time been able to bring in new models and approaches? That is essentially where the life comes: the strength of the old coupled with the creativity and imagination of new approaches to respond compassionately to the needs of the homeless-because they are members of our community.

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