On Skid Row
March 16, 2008 2:21 PM   Subscribe

On Skid Row is a five part video series about Skid Row in Los Angeles from GOOD Magazine. Introduction, Kids, Drugs, God, Afterword via y2karl's earlier via
posted by sleepy pete (9 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Institutionalized poverty and racism, a problem that could be solved by providing affordable decent housing to the mentally ill and to single parents. Thank you for the post, although it totally ruined my day of rest.
posted by francesca too at 3:22 PM on March 16, 2008

Talk about 18 and life to go.
posted by basicchannel at 3:39 PM on March 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

So what's going to happen when the cratering worldwide financial situation forces cities to cut back on everything, including the apparently already moribund "safer cities initiative"? Even that program, the narrator in the "Drugs" segment admitted, only made it "slightly" more difficult to score on skid row.

Choc Nitty's story is touching, even if I am skeptical that he no longer has any connection to the drug biz. Maybe he doesn't "slang rocks" anymore because he learned that it's much less risky to be a supplier or financier instead of a street level dealer. Anyway, even assuming the best, for every Choc Nitty there are 10 people who get out of their couple of weeks or months in jail and go right back out to the corner and keep slanging. You won't see them interviewed in documentaries.

I found the narrators puzzlement over the apparent incongruity of the juxtaposition of open-air illegal drugs market and the LA financial center rather naive. Where does he think a lot of that investment money comes from? In effect, we're looking at one of the shortest supply chains out there.
posted by telstar at 3:51 PM on March 16, 2008

The average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is 9 years old.

How can we be the wealthiest nation in the world and have this kind of poverty in our midst? The mind boggles.

Great series, great post. Thanks, sleepy pete.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:59 PM on March 16, 2008

I was just emailing back and forth this past week with Tanya Tull, CEO of Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit housing agency that has worked with families on skid row for more than 20 years. We were discussing some policy issues in homeless services provision that have been slow to take here in Philadelphia due to the fiefdom type structure of social services and politics in the city. I know that for any one who hasn't worked in urban social services, this series about skid row is bound to shock and probably induce despair. But the fact is that LA has been on the leading edge of homeless services policy for a long time and has as good a shot as any city at getting a real handle on its homelessness problem.

She sent me some comments that were meant to be used in an article at some point in the future but she encouraged me to publish them wherever I could. This is a long message comprised of really inside baseball homeless services wonk stuff, but if you are really interested and particularly about homeless in LA you should try to get through it. She references a Philadelphia Inquirer series on homelessness that was recently published, which focused for the first time in the paper's history on the housing first approach to homeless services. The criticisms to housing first (the method Tanya employs at Beyond Shelter, and more or less invented decades ago) from within the hierarchy of service providers in Philly was extremely troubling; providers here in Philly don't even seem to understand what housing first is yet, let alone have the will to change over existing resources to this new methodology. That's too bad for us.

Here's her email. Again, it's long, but important. It gives a total history of the issue and some real substantive policy arguments for resolving it.


Thanks for your email. I’d like to respond to both your question as well as comments made in the Philadelphia Inquirer article on Housing First. First, let me informally reply to the short paragraph you sent to me (Note: the paragraph was a harsh and unfounded criticism of housing first sent to me by a local family homeless services provider):

My short reply: "Twenty years of operating a Housing First Program for homeless families has proven tome beyond doubt that it can be successful for the aged out of foster care young adult with a child, teen to age 23 year old parents, someone who has never lived on their own, someone who has never worked or completed school, someone who becomes prey to abusive relationships, someone who has been evicted several times or who has abused property, etc. Housing First CAN and often DOES work well for many of the above parents, and perhaps even better for their children."

Based on my own experience here in Los Angeles, with homeless families sent to Beyond Shelter's Housing First program by 65 different agencies who provide emergency shelter and interim services, all of the above types of homeless families have successfully participated in our Housing First Program. We have relocated 3,700 homeless families to permanent housing, with approximately a 10% recidivism rate. I would say that at least 50% of those families would fall into the above categories. But what is MORE important to understand is that Housing First is not a specific housing destination, it is an approach that makes permanent housing the main focus early and upfront with homeless families. Some very high risk families could move to supportive housing, others to service-enriched housing (affordable housing linked to services coordination for all residents, regardless of need or history), and other to rental housing units in the community at-large (which is what Beyond Shelter does, utilizing primarily Section 8 vouchers). In Housing First program, families might move into many different types of housing. What labels the program Housing First is not the type of housing that they move into, but that they are assisted in moving into permanent housing "as quickly as possible," and then are provided home-based case management services for a transitional period of time (or longer, in some program, depending upon need), while being connected to mainstream systems in the community, as needed."

Here is my more formal reply:

Housing First is an approach that can and should be utilized with a wide range of homeless families. In fact, the National Alliance to End Homelessness recommends the approach as the primary strategy for serving this homeless population. And, there are successful programs around the country that serve families with DV, substance abuse, and/or mental health issues.

While the lack of affordable housing is the primary cause of family homelessness, families caught in a cycle of housing instability often experience a web of inter-related issues, which may include poverty, relationship difficulties, child welfare involvement, substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health problems.

Housing First addresses these challenges in two ways: 1) by providing access to financial resources, including money for security deposits and/or housing subsidies of various types, that can make rental housing more affordable; and 2) through the provision of home-based case management after families move into permanent housing, including helping families access specific services and resources in the community at-large that are responsive to their particular needs.

In the recent Philadelphia Inquirer article, “The new mandate: First, find them a home” there are two troubling comments made by individuals who clearly do not understand the Housing First model for families, which is different in a myriad of ways from Housing First for chronically homeless individuals. Unfortunately, even well-meaning advocates sometimes toss labels around irresponsibly and promote misunderstanding of program models that differ from their own. For example:

“We’re sending a message that poverty, serious trauma, domestic violence, childhood developmental delays, and addiction can all be fixed with an apartment.” (Gloria Guard, President of the People’s Emergency Center)

If this comment is about Housing First programs for families, it demonstrates a serious lack of knowledge about how such program actually operate. Every Housing First program I have ever heard of (and there are many of them operating successfully throughout the country now) focuses on case management, both before and after the move into permanent housing. Issues related to poverty, serious trauma, domestic violence, childhood developmental delays, and addiction, to name a few, are all addressed – through case management that assists families in accessing the resources and services responsive to their particular needs.

Because children are involved, Housing First Programs for families operate much differently than Housing First programs for individuals. For active domestic violence, Housing First programs often require separation from an abuser and domestic violence counseling and/or treatment for a several months before moving a family into permanent housing. For active substance abuse, Housing First programs often require several months in recovery before moving a family into permanent housing. Once in permanent housing, all formerly homeless families benefit greatly from home-based case management for a transitional period of time, to help them stabilize and prevent recidivism or a relapse.

In noting that Housing First can work for families whose foremost problems are financial but not for those dealing with myriad issues – domestic violence, addiction, mental illness – Dainette Mintz, the City’s Director of Homeless Services, stated, “That is not a family who ideally would be placed in independent housing, where we just start paying the rent and say bye-bye.” This statement is so fraught with misinformation that it is ludicrous. Housing First programs, first of all, don’t usually “pay the rent” for families. Secondly, Housing First programs all include a case management component to them. In other words, Housing First is NOT saying “Housing Only.” It is saying that homeless families do better when they are in a permanent housing environment and that the longer we keep families in our homeless services system, the more dependent many of them become.

In your follow up story in the City Paper, I would encourage you to point out the egregious errors in these comments.

Housing First providers do not claim that permanent housing is a panacea to every issue, nor do they believe their jobs are finished the minute families receive the keys to their new home. In fact, Housing First programs typically say that “their programs begin once families move into permanent housing.”

While Housing First providers firmly believe that permanent, affordable housing ends homelessness, and research conclusively supports this conviction, we do not purport to “fix” other issues merely by assisting a family to access affordable housing. Permanent housing, however, provides the stable base that enables families to address issues that may have contributed to a homeless episode or that resulted from the experience of homelessness itself.

Experience has shown that families are more responsive to service interventions when they have a stable, permanent base. That foundation combined with intensive, individualized home-based case management and linkages to community-based services and resources are indispensable to enabling families to rebuild their lives and to improve their social and economic well-being.

Why have we become so invested in the idea of “fixing” homeless families and why are we so wedded to the notion that the homeless services system must “cure” all of the psychosocial problems a family with a housing crisis may be facing? Those of us in the field for a long time now discount that notion emphatically.

When we first started seeing the emergence of homeless families in the 1980s, we didn’t place families in shelters because shelters didn’t exist at that time. What we did was to assist those families to get back into permanent housing within a few days, a little longer in some cases, regardless of their presenting needs or issues, and ensured that they had access to mainstream systems for ongoing support and stabilization. It was easier back then, unlike today, because there was still a relatively large stock of low-income housing.

As the problem of family and overall homelessness worsened, the continuum of care model was developed to address that crisis. Based on a deficits model, the continuum of care framework altered the original goal of our efforts, from rapidly assisting families back into permanent housing to first teaching them to live independently, the familiar myth of “housing readiness.” Homelessness was no longer defined as a structural issue but as an issue rooted in individual problems. Accordingly, as behavioral health and other issues became seen as barriers to housing readiness, the thinking was that those issues first had to be addressed before a family could be re-housed.

Housing First programs are demonstrating that the fundamental assumptions of this approach are flawed. The majority of families, even those with special needs and severe barriers to housing, do not become homeless again when they are rapidly re-housed in subsidized housing, which could be of many different types. Once in housing, families are then provided the services necessary to address their personal and interpersonal issues. Housing First providers explicitly recognize the need for services to address these issues and to help families overcome the trauma of homelessness itself. For this reason, the services that are traditionally provided in transitional housing are provided instead after the move into permanent housing.

The key to successfully working with families struggling with issues ranging from chemical dependency to housekeeping is to tailor an appropriate array of services and monitoring around families to ensure that these issues are addressed and that they do not jeopardize housing retention, child safety and overall family well-being.

In some cases, permanent supportive housing may be the most appropriate housing destination for families with the most severe barriers to living independently. In other cases, service-enriched housing with an on-site services coordinator may be a desirable placement. Or an apartment in the private rental market with a Section 8 subsidy and intensive, frequent home visitation and voluntary participation in treatment services may be all that is needed. Regardless of the housing destination, comprehensive screening and assessment up front is essential in order to enable providers to target permanent housing and voluntary services to meet the specialized and non-specialized needs of families.

The homeless services system cannot and should not try to solve addiction disorders, poverty, and the like. That system is not geared or funded for such work, whereas mainstream services systems, while not always well coordinated or integrated, are substantially better funded and equipped for these challenges.

We do not need parallel systems for homeless families and low-income housed families, given the research findings on the remarkable similarities between these two populations.

There are more housed families who struggle with domestic violence, addictions and/or psychiatric problems than there are homeless families with these issues. Why are we so determined then to pathologize families facing a housing crisis and to create separate programs for them as if they are somehow so different from poor, housed families?

The comment from the family provider that Housing First does not work for “…someone who has never lived on their own, someone who has never worked or completed school, someone who becomes prey to abusive relationships, someone who has been evicted several times or who has abused property” ignores how these are the very same issues that many low-income, housed families face.

Rather than continuing to think of families who are homeless as isolated and different from poor, housed families, we should rapidly re-house homeless families and deliver comprehensive interventions in communities that support poor, housed and homeless families in the same way and through the same mainstream service systems.

I am not aware of a body of research that shows that longer stays in transitional programs result in better outcomes once families are housed, whether those outcomes are housing retention, child safety, living violence free, etc. So, the inference that the homelessness services system can “cure” poverty, serious trauma, domestic violence, childhood developmental delays, and addiction seems unfounded.

The recent research findings of (Penn Social Research professor) Dennis Culhane indicate that those families who stay longer in homeless programs in fact have the least amount of problems (i.e., child welfare placement, inpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment). Culhane believes that program policies, rather than client characteristics, are driving this phenonmenon. This calls into question arguments for restricting Housing First to easier-to-serve families.

With its current configuration and its present emphasis on housing readiness, the homeless services system is not meeting, and may not be able to meet, the needs of families with the greatest barriers to housing if providers continue to condition housing assistance on service compliance or “jumping through a series of hoops.”

Experience has shown that such families tend to be terminated from or voluntarily leave programs before they are assisted in finding permanent housing. Focusing on service needs as a precondition for housing is a violation of basic human rights and alienates rather than engages many of these families. New approaches and a revisioning of the system are needed.

While Housing First is an effective strategy to end and prevent family homelessness, including for households with severe barriers to housing, the approach may not be appropriate for all families. Teenage mothers who lack independent living skills may benefit from a longer period of short-term stabilization in emergency shelter or transitional housing before being assisted into permanent housing. And as I said earlier, active substance abusers could also benefit from a period of stabilization, but not necessarily with absolute requirements on sobriety, before permanent housing. Without question, victims of domestic violence benefit from a period of healing and from domestic violence counseling before moving on to independent living.

In these cases, however, the underlying principles of Housing First should still guide services delivery. Namely, families should be assisted in moving into permanent housing as quickly as possible after stabilization, rather than placing unnecessary service conditions upon them or unnecessarily prolonging homeless episodes.

The other issue to remember is that many people, including practitioners in the field, think that Housing First for chronically homeless and/or dually diagnosed individuals looks the same and is operated the same as Housing First for homeless families. The basic concept may be the same, but program methodology differs dramatically.

Warm regards,

Tanya Tull
Beyond Shelter
1200 Wilshire Boulevard, #600
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Phone: 213 252 0772
Fax: 213 480 0846
email: ttull@beyondshelter.org
website: www.beyondshelter.org
posted by The Straightener at 4:21 PM on March 16, 2008 [5 favorites]

I'm agreeing with Tanya Hull on the need to decently house the poor, not only families and mentally ill but also the people just released from jail, in order to break this cycle.

I have learned from the founder of Hand Up, a foundation that finds housing and work for released prisoners, that the rate of recidivism is around 1% (sex offenders comprise 60% of the people they help) when they are given a hand up with housing, with obtaining identification, with finding a job.

Providing a stable home to families in need will permit the children to be in the same school system: they are bound to learn more if not jerked in and out of different schools.
posted by francesca too at 4:49 PM on March 16, 2008

I find that to be a terribly shocking statistic as well madamjujujive. The parallels with New York in the 80s are indeed apt.

Giuliani for L.A. mayor?
posted by auralcoral at 6:00 PM on March 16, 2008

The economics of "housing first" are favorable at the moment. Zillions of new condos got built in the past few years, and now a glut is upon the market. If the government is going to bail out giant financial gamblers like Bear Stearns, then why not take their sinking real-estate collateral and use it for public housing?
posted by telstar at 6:16 PM on March 16, 2008

Oh shit, the kids link. More and more often, it seems, I have real pangs of dislike towards my own nation.

My hometown was listed as the second worst city for homeless folks a couple years ago. I'm really not sold on the fact that Lawrence is really second worst, but it pisses me off that the city could do so much more for the homeless population but doesn't. (I volunteer a bit, and donate when I'm financially stable enough to, but the city council is not friendly to the folks who run the shelters.)

Anyway, here's another vote for "housing first".

Oh, and it might go without saying, but fuck Ronald Reagan.
posted by cog_nate at 9:28 PM on March 16, 2008

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