212 – Can We Really End Homelessness?

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Larry Haynes to discuss effective models and attitudes to end homelessness. Larry is the Executive Director at Mercy House with over 30 years of experience working to end homelessness. 

Key Points

  • Changing the perspective of actions surrounding homelessness from charitable to systemic change in order to make a societal difference.
  • The difference between a shelter and housing extends more than just the period of time but includes more rights that extend beyond socioeconomic lines.
  • Academic studies have exhibited that “It costs society more in actual dollars to just walk past a person and let them decompose in the street than it does to simply subsidize their housing for the rest of their life.”
  •  There are more challenges in housing the Transitional Age Youth (TAY) population, but Larry discusses some key systems that can create a positive outcome.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 212 – Can We Really End Homelessness?

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:40] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, we have talked about the topic of homelessness many times on this show because there are so many connections, of course, to human trafficking. And today, we are so glad to be able to welcome a longtime friend of the Global Center for Women and Justice, and someone who is just really an expert on this issue. I know he’s going to teach us so much. I’m glad to welcome Larry Haynes to the show today. He is a longtime homeless advocate and executive director of Mercy House. Mercy House is a shelter and housing organization spanning throughout Southern California and parts of Arizona. Larry was also a former adjunct professor at Vanguard University and former lay preacher at Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange, California. Larry, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.

Larry [00:01:38] Oh, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, guys.

Sandie [00:01:40] Well, and I’m excited because Mercy House was recognized at our Priceless event as the organization receiving our Diamond Award. And Larry was the representative to accept that award. I’ve known Larry since I came to Vanguard, I trust his leadership. He was on our very first advisory board to keep the center going during some very lean times. So, if we get a little emotional, everybody, this is a really fun bonding time. So, let us start off with how long have you been working to end homelessness, Larry?

Larry [00:02:19] Well, so I actually started in 1988, so a little over 30 years. And I started at Mercy House, I’m not its founder, but I am its original employee. And I started at Mercy House in 1990, so this next year, we’ll be celebrating my 30th year as the executive director of Mercy House

Sandie [00:02:36] Congratulations.

Larry [00:02:38] Thanks, thanks very much.

Sandie [00:02:39] So, what have you seen happen in those 30 years in how you address homelessness?

Larry [00:02:48] Well, you know, I think there’s a lot that’s changed, right? Everybody thinks they know how to help because intuitively, you see somebody homeless, you think of shelter, or food kitchen, or you know, that sort of thing. And that’s all understandable, but I think the most significant change from today, as opposed to when I first started, is this notion and it was in your title and we end homelessness. And, you know, when we first started the 80s, that would have just simply been, you know, an absurd conversation. It wouldn’t even have it on the table. So, consequently, because of that, a lot of our actions when it came to homelessness, was really from the perspective of charity, not justice. It was more I’m going to do this thing that feels nice and is charitable and it has some goodness to it, but not really serious about in making a societal difference. Right? You know, maybe like, you know, the old slogan, you know, “one person at a time” kind of thing, but not real systemic or structural change. Well, several years ago, you know, a number of us had sort of this epiphany, which is that you know, what if we changed our consciousness? What if we change the conversation to, you know, nor are we going to manage homelessness, but what would happen if we actually tried to end it? And from that, all sorts of things that happened, you know, more of an emphasis on getting people into housing right away as opposed to shelter.

Sandie [00:04:12] Stop right there and tell us the difference between shelter and housing.

Larry [00:04:17] Well, the biggest difference and the most obvious difference is the length of stay. I mean, you go to a shelter and it’s for a certain period of time, generally speaking. Whereas housing, it’s your home, right? You are there. You are a tenant. But it’s really more than that. It’s also sort of psychological for the person as well. As long as you are in a shelter, you are sort of at someone’s mercy. You are sort of there because someone’s allowing you to stay there. While housing, properly speaking, actually comes with all sorts of different rights. I mean, once you are a tenant, you have tenant’s rights, it doesn’t matter if you’re very rich or very poor. I mean, one of the great things about this country is that rights are supposed to extend beyond socioeconomic lines. And that is something that is a bit of a game-changer. Also, we also have to be really specific when we talk about we’re going to end homelessness and we get them in housing. Housing is the end of homelessness. That’s the end goal that we’re all trying to reach. Also, I was referencing, and I think you picked up on it, was and it is probably one of the biggest innovations in the last several years, at least the last 10 years, has been this concept of the housing first philosophy. And that’s a monumental change. And prior to housing first, what we did was- we would get somebody in one of our shelters and we try and fix them. We would say, OK, we’re going to get you clean and sober, we’re going to get you a job, we’re going to get you financial literacy. You bring in, you know, skills classes. But whatever it might be, we’re going to hold you at the shelter for a long time, and if you improve, if you get fixed, well then you are entitled to get into housing, and you go on your merry way. The housing first concept actually inverts that whole process. Housing First wants to say, housing is a right, not a reward for being a good boy or girl. And what we want to do is get you into housing first. Then, we’re not withdrawing services, but now the idea is, OK, what is it that you need to stabilize your housing there? Right? Because everybody’s different.

Sandie [00:06:13] Wait a minute. I’m already facing challenges with what you’re saying. You’re getting them into housing, but you haven’t fixed them. How are they going to sustain being in housing? Because they probably don’t have a job. They probably don’t have an income source. So, this doesn’t sound very doable. You can tell I’ve been trying to figure this out.

Larry [00:06:38] Let’s break this down. The first mistake, and I’ve made it myself in these first five minutes. The first mistake when we talk about, you know, helping the homeless is we have this sort of monolithic picture that everybody’s the same. And so, we say things like you just said that I will push back a little bit, “Will they…” Fill in the blank. Well, you know, it’s kind of like saying all men are one way and all women are another way. We know that’s just nonsense. And so, every single person is different. And there is not one reason why someone’s homeless versus another. But for the sake of clarity here, for the sake of your question, let’s break it down into two camps just to make it easy. What happens is you want to do an assessment on someone. You want to figure out what to do for that person, the engagement you want to execute based on the assessment, based on what the data tells you. Not what your ideology tells you, right? Not you know, I come to this with a preconceived idea, people are homeless or poor because fill in your ideological blank. But let’s do an assessment and let’s see what the real data says, and then we’ll go from there. Now, likely what’s going to happen and I’m grossly overgeneralizing just for the sake of this conversation. But you’re going to find some folks that, you know, is given a little bit of help, if stabilized a little bit, based on the information that we’ve gathered, are going to be self-sufficient. And so, for that person, you’re going to engage in one sort of strategy, probably what’s known as rapid rehousing. The idea in rapid rehousing is we’re going to subsidize your rent for, you know, depending on your needs, probably three to six months. And during that time, you are going to secure work, you’re going to develop teams, you’re going to kind of get your house in order, if you will. So, that at the end of this subsidy, at the end of this time, we disappear and you’re ready to move on. And that’s more than likely an effective strategy because of the assessment we’ve done. Because, you know what? You know, the reason that you’re homeless, you know, is maybe you had a job loss. You know, maybe it has something to do with some sort of incidental economic issue, something of that nature. And so, given a little bit of period time to stabilize, which we’re going to help with, they’re going to be fine now. However, the other half of the group we’re going to talk about are folks who are chronically homeless, folks who need what’s called permanent supportive housing. And they need this because, you know what? They have multiple disabilities, there may be a substance addiction, there’s likely a mental health disorder that we’re addressing. And the truth of the matter is they are not likely to ever be self-sufficient just based on their disability, more than likely. And so, for that group, what we’re going to do is we’re going to create housing and we are going to subsidize their housing, because really, at the end of the day, for this population I’m talking about, you only have two choices. You either let a person die in the street or you pay for their housing for the rest of their lives. And then we ask the question, well, why should we do that? Really, there’s two answers now. A certain part of me, a certain part of me wants to make the argument that we would do such a thing because it’s the decent thing to do, right? You know, I’m a person of faith. And I’d like to think that my faith actually matters, that it’s about more than just eternal fire insurance. And so, to even ask that question is, I will admit it for me is offensive. But not everybody shares my worldview, I get that, in fact- most don’t. So, then the real reason though, that we do this is because it makes good business sense because literally it costs more to do nothing. It costs society more in actual dollars to just walk past a person and let them decompose in the street than it does to simply subsidize their housing for the rest of their life. There is plenty of data, there are at least a dozen or more academically based, peer-reviewed studies all across the country that demonstrate this fact. Indisputable, the data is really just not in question. We have our own local report done by the University of California, Irvine, that proves this many time over that the cost of leaving somebody on the streets far exceeds the cost of simply housing them. So, while it costs, according to the UC Irvine study, for example, cost society roughly one hundred thousand dollars a year to leave someone on the street. It’s not all coming from one place, that is a combination of emergency room visits, police department calls, ethics code enforcement and so forth and so on. Now, I would contend that that number is actually quite conservative because it’s not calculated. And I know this because I was part of the advisor group in the study, so I saw how the method was put together. With that said, the study doesn’t include though, as any business or economics professor would see this a mile away, is lost opportunity. What was not calculated in that study is how much did somebody’s property value go down because usable public space is no longer usable for the general public. What isn’t calculated in that is what is the profitability of local businesses. How is that possibly declined because somebody sleeping on the front porch? Of course, that has an impact on local businesses. But even those numbers that those lost opportunity numbers, if you will, that’s not even included in there. So, it is in all of our interests, forget humanity, forget altruism- it is in all of our very practical interests to end homelessness and to get these folks housed.

Sandie [00:12:04] So, when I explain that cost-benefit analysis to people and they just don’t buy it, what am I doing wrong? Why can’t I make them understand?

Larry [00:12:17] Yeah. There is a big part of me that I honestly think that we believe what we want to believe. Why a person chooses not to believe it? Let me try and be generous on your point. I am the son of a steelworker, I have a real blue-collar ethic that runs deep, deep, deep into my veins. I get that and I get this idea that you know, where there’s a certain amount of pride. You work for everything that you have, you don’t take charity. You know, all that kind of stuff that I get. And there is something intuitively offensive in giving somebody something for free. I do understand that. And so, the person that is maybe rejecting that, quite likely is maybe somebody who has worked their whole life, pays their taxes, and are probably thinking to themselves, “Shoot, I’d like somebody to pay my housing for life.” I think those of us on my side of sort of the political spectrum have to have some compassion for that point of view. If it’s not defensible, it’s at least an understandable point of view. And I think that might drive some of that. But the truth of the matter is, the numbers are what they are. And they have been not only proven, but re-proven over and over and over again.

Sandie [00:13:25] So, now I want to link this to one of my major issues that I am constantly dealing with. The domestic numbers of human trafficking victims in California, and really nationally, are much larger than the international people being trafficked here. And a lot of that has to do with vulnerabilities that are the same as what you’re talking about with housing insecurity, and particularly with young people, which is why I ask about people who don’t have any job skills. Young people who are aging out of the system or for whatever reason, find themselves homeless and then become very vulnerable to either labor or sex trafficking recruiters. And now then we “rescue” them, and I’m using air quotes when I say rescue, we often just say recover. But now we can’t get them into sustainable housing, and so they just go back into the system again. Recidivism rates are enormous. So, how do we deal with an 18, 20, 22-year-old who has no job skills, maybe does have some of the long-term mental health issues related to their trauma? How are we going to get them stable in housing so that they can recover? They’re constantly in between shelters, assisted living, all kinds of things, but nothing where they can say what you said at the start of the program, “This is my home.”

Larry [00:15:07] So, let me answer that from a couple of different angles. Let’s start first off with sort of a quick systems analysis as a part of the problem there. Number one, when I was a moment ago speaking of permanent supportive housing, likely the population that you just described, which in my world we would call the TAY transition to age youth population is not going to qualify for permanent supportive housing. Generally speaking, it is for people who get on the streets for several years with multiple disabilities. Right?

Sandie [00:15:37] Ok.

Larry [00:15:37] And that’s generally speaking, not going to be this population that’s going to be aging out of the system if you will. However, if we don’t have proper interventions, that is exactly what’s going to happen to them in a best-case scenario, if not dead. So, that’s one thing. Recently, over the last two years, at least prior to this current administration, there had been a lot of investment in TAY housing to address this very thing because it is recognized as an alarmingly growing population within sort of the homeless universe.

[00:16:06] If you will. And it is a deep concern to a lot of us. Now, I would say that there’s usually a lag time between when an investment is made, and an impact is seen in terms of our measurement. So, we’re going to have to wait and see how much of this is linked. But unless the housing is directed at this population, they tend to miss out on the other resources for the general homeless population for a couple of reasons. Let’s just break down a little bit and I’m going to circle back to another problem with this population.

Sandie [00:16:37] OK.

Larry [00:16:37] 1 they’re not going to qualify for the support of housing for the reasons that I’ve just indicated. Right. Well, another sort of sub-component of the homeless movement, if you will, is going to be family homelessness. Likely they’re not going to qualify under that as well. So, they’re out of that box. I’d mentioned earlier the rapid rehousing, well they may or may not qualify, but as you said, if they’re young, if there are no skills, if there’s not a lot of optimism about them stabilizing in a relatively short period of time, they may not qualify there as well. And so, they may start to slip through the cracks. That’s why entire programs are created for this transition-age youth. I would say this and we at Mercy House have had some experience in developing shelter for this population, but there are some special challenges for this population. When you’re 19 years old and I am probably projecting a little bit. When I was when I was 19, I was bulletproof. Nothing scares me, no consequence to danger. I was superman, I was absolutely bulletproof. There is nothing you could’ve told me that would have altered my behavior at all. Fifty-five now, I look at the world a little differently. Yeah. But that is part of the issue. If you create a shelter or housing or an intervention for this group, it has to be seen as highly, highly, highly attractive because you can’t force somebody to stay into something. So, that’s one aspect. Another thing that we found in our practical experience as we tried to create housing alternatives for this population was that this population in our experience tended to be more communal. And so, it was really difficult maybe just to let’s say that you’ve got and I’m making this hypothetical numbers up for the sake of conversation. Let’s say that you’ve got a group of, say, 10 people, 10 young adults who would fit. And you have resources for four of them or three of them more likely. And you try to pluck three out of that 10. Well, which you are going to quickly find is that all 10 are going to be in one location because there’s this notion of traveling in packs for all sorts of reasons. And that can present a hardship. You know, if you provide somebody with a lease or whatever and they’re the only one on the lease and the property manager comes up and does a check and there’s 10 people living there, you’ve got a problem. But it’s understandable because that is in fact how, not all, but a lot of these young adults are experiencing their world. You would say, hey, you know, you can’t do that here. If you do that here, you’re going to lose this housing opportunity. It doesn’t register for the 19-year-old mind, you know, it does the 50-year-old mind, but not a 19-year-old. And so, there are some internal issues, though. So, as we design our responses for this population, in my opinion, it needs to meet people where they’re at, not where I want them to be. And so, we have to understand some things. We have to understand the notion of this population not engaging, at least in some light social drug use is probably not likely. So, you just have to be able to live with that. You have to understand, as I said, the communal nature. You have to understand that these aren’t fully formed adults that you could tell one thing. You’re going to have to repeat yourself over and over and over again. There’s more than likely some arrested development going on there in terms of the psyches of who we’re dealing with, and the programs have to reflect that. So, there’s just a ton of things that need to go into it. It is different from sort of the standard homeless system in order to create a positive outcome that we want. I do think, though, one of the things that I think that the general public sometimes loses sight of is that what we’re doing, there is some science to it. What I mean by that is, is that word ever. All of us, at least all of us that do this well, are ever learning systems, ever learning individuals and ever learning organizations. So, you know, groups are getting better at this. And five years from now, we’ll be better still. But this is a subpopulation that is particularly challenging. One quick word and I’m going on. But you’re right, this is a population that gets embroiled in trafficking. But here’s what we have to remember about people. People usually don’t just make sort of evil choices or bad choices or dumb choices. They make choices that they perceive are in their self-interest. And sometimes to get somebody to break whatever cycle, to whatever extent their sense of will needs to come into place for their ability to commit, we have to offer them something that is a better offer than where they currently are.

Sandie [00:21:01] And here’s where I think that the intersection of your experience with this population, understanding the difference between real housing and sheltering and so many of the programs that would take the traditional age youth that have been trafficked or have other similar trauma stories and understanding that when you try to get them to fit into your shelter program, that very much reflects your model of riverside blue-collar, earn it and do this. They aren’t wired for that and they leave. And then we’ve spent a lot of money on something that didn’t work. What if we redesigned? We retooled, and I know it takes time, but what if we retooled to meet them where they are and let them have a home where there aren’t 17 rules for coming and going? I don’t know.

Larry [00:22:00] You’re absolutely right. And here’s a couple of quick points. So, I want to be really clear for your listeners. I’m not trying to posit housing against shelter. Mercy House as an agency, for example, does both. We’re one of the largest probably one of the largest emergency shelters possibly in the country. However, the focus of our shelter is not to keep them there, but to get them into housing as quickly as possible. It’s to have a short stay there to bounce into a housing unit. But you just said Sandie, said two things where there’s a huge crossover. With a TAY population, you have to blow up your rules. You just do, you have to ask yourself, are you more interested in helping this person or are you more interested in your system or your belief system? And as for me, the answer is quite obvious. But here are a couple of things here that you mentioned that are really important. It’s a really important crossover. One is this notion of meeting people where they are, as opposed to imposing. It is the same in our housing projects. So, let me be very clear. Hopefully, I don’t lose any donors over this. But on the side of the housing that we have, especially permanent supportive housing, there is no sobriety requirement. None. You will not be evicted for drinking, for using drugs, for, you know, whatever impious behavior. The reason is, is that we believe very strongly what you just said, in my world, it’s called a harm reduction model. You want to meet someone where they are, where they really are, not where you want them to be. Meet them where they are in designer reality that fits who and where they are. The second thing that’s really important and where the point I was trying to get at is, I hear all the time, oh, they don’t want any help. Many people on the streets, you offer them shelter, you offer them whatever. And they said, “no, I’d rather just be in my tent by the river bed” or, you know, fill in the blank. Same sort of thing with these young adults who’ve aged out of the system. You’ll offer them help, and they’re like, “no, I’d rather do this other thing”. And so, to the untrained person, they walk away, and they say, “well, see, they really don’t want my help. I tried” you know, I wipe my hands. The reason that that offer was turned down is probably a couple of things. Number one, they may not have trusted the person who was offering them help. And do you blame them?

Sandie [00:24:13] They’ve been burned so many times.

Larry [00:24:16] Exactly. Why would they believe you or at least why would they believe you at first? It’s probably going to take a dozen or more interactions for them to think that you don’t mean them harm, number one. Number two, do they perceive what you’re offering as something that’s actually better than what they already have? And maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I tell you, my 30 years of doing this, I’ve had plenty of people turn down opportunities to enter into a shelter, which I completely understand. I had very few, if any, ever turned out housing ever, because it’s perceived as something better. Then the question is why should I support your group, my group, or any group that does? Does this in fact work? If these people are not going to work, or they’re not going to get clean and sober, will this actually work? Here’s the thing. And I’m data-driven, I’m a data-driven guy, and so is our organization. And our housing facilities that have these most vulnerable the most broken people. People that have been on the streets, you know, where we measure it, not simply in months, but sometimes decades. Multiple addictions, multiple disabilities, our sort of average retention rate across all of our permanent housing programs is over 90 percent.

Sandie [00:25:23] Wow.

Larry [00:25:25] I mean, it just works. And for the TAY population, something needs to be created in order for a housing project to work. It needs to be created to meet their needs where they are with all sorts of forgiveness, all sorts of graciousness. Understanding that what we’re trying to do is we’re not trying to turn a person into a saint. We’re trying to end their homelessness. We’ll let God worry about turning someone into a saint. For our part, let’s at least get them off the street.

Sandie [00:25:51] I love it. What a great way to close. It requires that we do this again, Larry.

Larry [00:25:58] You know, I’m your guy. Any time, Sandie.

Sandie [00:26:01] Yeah, well, this has given us a lot to think about. It has sparked some ideas about who I need to get in the same room. So, don’t be surprised, Larry, if you don’t get a calendar invite the first of the year.

Larry [00:26:15] Well, you know where to find me, and I’ll always say yes. It’s been a real pleasure.

Sandie [00:26:18] OK, thank you so much.

Dave [00:26:20] Larry, Sandie, thank you so much for this conversation. Sandie, it happens pretty much every time we get together. I’ve learned some new things from Larry today, and I hope you have as well, too. And we’re inviting you to really take the first step as well on this journey, especially if you’re a recent new listener to the show. Welcome, by the way, if you are. I hope you’ll hop online to Endinghumantrafficking.org not only to find the notes from this episode but also to download a copy of Sandie’s book. It’s completely free, The Five Things You Must Know A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie identified that will help you to be empowered to join the fight against trafficking. You can get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. While you’re online, also visit EnsureJustice.com. That is going to be our Ensure Justice conference coming up in early March 2020, March 6th and 7th here in Southern California. More details there. Sandie, thanks so much and see you back in two weeks.

Sandie [00:27:24] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:27:24] Take care, everyone.

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