Published on March 3rd, 2016 | by Reporters Desk0
Evading the Holes in the Safety Net
One Mother’s Journey Through Los Angeles County’s Coordinated Entry System
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
The City of Los Angeles recently moved to seize and presumably dispose of the tiny houses that have been cropping up near freeway overpasses in South Los Angeles within the past year. This and the removal of encampments in other parts of the city are done in response to complaints of blight. The official actions are also aimed at preventing homeless people from getting so comfortable on the streets that they don’t get the available help that is out there.
But what is often missing from the conversation is the effectiveness of city and county efforts in preventing homelessness and elevating people out of homelessness.
Tisha Doby’s experience of navigating the various programs for women with children, without many of the issues that keep many chronically homeless people homeless, is illustrative of the best and worst of Los Angeles’ anti-poverty and affordable housing solutions.
Doby, a 40-year-old mother of two teenage daughters, migrated to California from Pittsburgh several months ago. She owned a fashion business and believed that she could build a better life for daughters in Los Angeles.
She was a solidly working-class business owner. The move wasn’t just for her. It was for her daughters. Doby described her youngest daughter as a prodigy who designed clothes, while the oldest was a model. Both teenagers are academically gifted, she said.
Before making the trek, Doby researched low-income housing options that would allow her to avoid homelessness until she was able “to get on her feet.”
During that process, she found the Los Angeles County program, Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness. This was her initial introduction to resources for low-income people in Southern California.
Nothing quite went as planned when she and her daughters arrived. Doby believed that she would be able to immediately get into some low-income housing, but was only able to get a 14-night hotel voucher and enroll in Greater Avenues for Independence, also known as GAIN, a Los Angeles County program that provides employment-related services to California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids, or CalWORKs. The program helps participants find work, stay employed and move on to higher paying jobs.
If nothing else, Doby stayed organized and persistent, keeping detailed paper trail of her expenditures as proof that she’s a responsible adult.
There’s an abundance of resources and programs to assist the down-and-out with a leg up out of poverty. But Doby’s experience shows that even with these, the road to self-sufficiency is pitted with potholes, red tape and human obstacles.
“Nobody ever really explained who did what when or where,” Doby explained recently. “It was like a hodgepodge of call this person, go there, do this, go to this appointment. So I ended up meeting up with Ms. Barrett at the Multi Service Center in Long Beach.”
The case manager took Doby’s application and said she would expedite it so that she and her daughters wouldn’t have to sleep in the streets. With time running out, she went back to the county for help. They gave her booklet filled with numbers of organizations that could help. The person at the first number she called told her that the place didn’t have any beds available. Doby and her family ultimately ended up at the Union Rescue Mission.
“Here I am with my two kids who had never been subjected to anything like that in their life,” she said. “We had to go to the Union Rescue Mission because I had already paid for one night at a hotel out of my own pocket. So I was left with no resource.”
She and her daughters had already spent a night at the Union Rescue Mission, when she got a call back from Los Angeles County’s Family Source Center and was told to go to their Long Beach office for the follow up meeting.
“I’m traveling by bus with my GPS because I don’t know anything about [anywhere] out here,” Doby said. “So I spent the whole day trying to get to Long Beach and the lady told me I was at the wrong location. You have to get rescheduled.”
The caseworker there ultimately forwarded her file to Harbor Interfaith Services and told Doby to call if she didn’t hear from them within the week.
Connecting to Harbor Interfaith
She called after a week had passed.
Doby underwent Harbor Interfaith’s assessment Aug. 27. She was able to get into Harbor Interfaith’s 90-day shelter program on Sept. 8.
After undergoing the assessment, passing the background check, Doby was told she had to meet with a therapist and a case manager.
Harbor Interfaith Services Executive Director Tahia Hayslet noted that it takes about 30 days on average, but often, longer, to transition a person living on the street into a 90-day shelter program. And that person may not necessarily end up at Harbor Interfaith’s shelter. She said it’s all based on priority throughout Service Planning Area 8 of the Coordinated Entry System, a geographic area that covers much of the southern part of Los Angeles County.
She was told there was 80 percent mandatory savings, she had to go to self-improvement classes and that if she was not working, she should be enrolled in school.
Doby said she had no trouble abiding by these conditions—that is, all but one: the mandatory 80 percent savings. Doby told the caseworker that she would have trouble with that condition due to the necessity of maintaining her storage units in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles as well as some minimum payment obligations related to her shuttered business.
The mandatory 80 percent savings is not unusual. Hayslet explained that most 90-day shelter programs deploy the requirement as a means of helping clients save enough money for their deposit for an apartment and exercising financial discipline. Still, program participants struggle with the strict requirements.
Doby explained that she was on a fixed income and was receiving $704 per month. She was required to contribute $563 per month, leaving her short the money to pay for her storage units and remain in compliance with Harbor Interfaith’s 90-day shelter program.
Doby said she told the caseworker all of this and asked that they work with her on the mandatory savings component. The caseworker told Doby she’ll speak with the higher-ups and get back to her. Doby said she never heard anything more until she got the call to go to Harbor Interfaith with her daughters and her belongings.
When Doby arrived and was completing the final paperwork that would allow her to move into Harbor Interfaith’s 90-day shelter program, no discussion or decision had been made on whether the service organization would work with her on that condition.
Doby recalled being told, “I can’t make that decision for you. You have to decide for yourself.”
“But you told me that you would talk to your boss about this,” she told the caseworker. “Why would you call me if you didn’t do that?”
Doby’s daughters were waiting outside with their ride and all of their belongings. By leaving the Union Rescue Mission based on the belief that she would be staying a new location, she no longer had a bed there.
Doby signed the paper anyway believing that she could work out the problems along the way.
Things came perilously close to not working out for Doby. She recounted meeting with her case manager once a week for three weeks with little interaction. Doby said she didn’t learned whether the 80 percent mandatory deposit would remain an obstacle or if three were other alternatives that would lead to permanent housing.
Doby said the situation came to a head when the deadline to pay the deposit had came and passed and Family Shelter director, Sharon Stewart, gave her 48 hours to either pay the 80 percent deposit or leave the program. Doby said it was only then that her caseworker began providing possible leads to permanent housing.
“She [the case manager] gave me a stack of papers that was like an inch thick,” Doby explained.
The options consisted of single-room occupation hotels that charge $500 per month and other 90-day shelter programs.
The options that stood out was a 90-day program in Santa Monica, which provides the same services as Harbor Interfaith and Harbor Interfaith’s Accelerated Learning & Living program.
Doby noted that she had a Section 8 referral since she made the move to California. But she had not heard anything further on that front.
“You entrapped me because you told me you weren’t going to call me unless you could work stuff out,” Doby recalled telling her case manager. “And then you get me out here and I’m asking you week after week what’s going to happen when I can’t pay that and you’re not giving me an answer and then it’s the [Oct.] 7. I met with her every Wednesday at 5 o’clock. So it’s already after business hours when we met anyway so there was nothing I could do until that next morning.”
Doby started making calls the next morning before she had to leave for a doctor’s appointment about a cancer scare. She left messages. Other places she called said they were full. She even called the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the Los Angeles city and county department that oversees the Coordinated Entry System and explained her situation. She was referred to a number of people within the organization that couldn’t get her on a path that would lead to permanent housing in less than 48 hours.
“I was like, what is going on in California that I can’t get a straight answer from anybody and there’s no repercussion for people not doing their jobs?” she recalled.
The meeting took place on Wednesday evening, Friday came and went without incident, the following Monday was a holiday. Doby said that Tuesday morning, Stewart walked into Doby’s unit, leaving the door open, asking for the deposit. Doby said she was only in a towel at that point, in process of getting dressed when Stewart walked in.
Recalling the exchange, Doby noted that she asked why she signed the paperwork knowing she couldn’t pay the deposit.
“Because I was told you were going to work with me because of my two storage units,” she responded. “I could understand if you told me you couldn’t work with me on the rest. But how are you going to tell me, a mother with children, that I have to lose all this stuff that I earned and paid for to stay here for 90 days… when you’re an agency that is supposed to be helping us? … It makes no sense. I’m an adult. I’m not a drug addict. My kids weren’t wrapped up in the system. I relocated. There’s a difference.
“When my phone rang when I was at the [Union Rescue Mission] and I was told to come out here at 3 o’clock, that led me to believe everything was worked out. It wasn’t until I gave up my bed, paid somebody to bring us out here that you’re here telling me … you’re not giving me the key unless I sign this paper. What would you do?”
Doby was ultimately able to come to an agreement with Stewart and stay.
“I went to the classes,” Doby said. “I did my chores. I was in school already. I adhered to the curfew. I didn’t have any problems with any of it. As I told her, it’s not what I wanted but it’s a step.”
Doby found herself on a two-track process, the Accelerated Learning & Living program or going to Lydia House in Santa Monica when her time was up in Harbor Interfaith’s shelter. An immediate response from Lydia House confirmed for Doby’s initial reservations about the work that would have only transferred her to another 90-day shelter program.
“The lady from Lydia House called me the next day with follow up questions,” Doby recalled. She was confused. She said, ‘I don’t understand why I have your referral.’ She said, ‘Our program does exactly the same thing that Harbor Interfaith does.’ She said, “I don’t want to be overlapping services because if we bring you out here I won’t be able to do much more than what Harbor Interfaith is doing. Are you not getting services?’”
After Doby told the Lydia House case manager how she came to Los Angeles, she was told that if there were Section 8 housing was available, it will likely go to the worst case scenarios, the chronically homeless.
Doby said she felt like she had been strung along from the beginning.
“I wasn’t asking for a hand out,” Doby said. “I was asking for a hand up. I was just asking for some time in income based housing until I can get on my feet and establish my business out here.”
The sad truth of it all is that their inability to direct Doby to low-income housing is not even Harbor Interfaith’s fault.
Section 8 housing is the primary source of low-income housing. But with a 2 percent vacancy rate in Los Angeles rental housing market and few apartment owners willing to take Section 8 tenants, what we’re left with is homeless policy that’s more smoke and mirrors than smart policy.
Of all the options Doby was offered, the Accelerated Learning & Living program was the only one that would lead to permanent housing.
The Accelerated Learning & Living program meant that Doby and her two daughters could live in an apartment for up to 18 months until she finished school and found a job that would allow her to support her family. She underwent a background check, provided education transcripts and all the required paperwork.
Doby said she got a call from the director of the Accelerated Learning & Living program a couple of weeks later and met with him.
“First of all, I don’t know why I got your referral; it’s not complete,” Doby said, recalling the conversation. “You have a Pennsylvania ID. That’s not sufficient.”
She said he reiterated his question, asking “why are you in my state, drinking my water, and eating my food?”
She thought he was possibly joking before coming to the realization that he was serious.
“What? We don’t have the right to do better or want better?” Doby asked.
She recalled retelling her story of relocating her business and building a better life for her children.
She recalled him saying, “Oh, so you chose to be homeless.”
What’s apparent from Doby’s recollection was that she walked away feeling judged by something other than the requirements of the program.
Doby’s original checklist didn’t specify she needed a California identification. It also didn’t specify that she needed to be a full-time student. At the time, she was a part-time student taking online courses with QC Design School. Doby secured all new additional paperwork asked of her and enrolled in a more rigorous Art Institute for interior design.
Before she turned in her paperwork, Doby got to hear about the Accelerated Learning & Living program from Family Shelter Director Sharon Stewart during a resident meeting, reaffirming what she initially learned about the program. After the class, Doby showed her paperwork to Stewart. It was Doby’s understanding that Stewart had taken over her case for the Accelerated Learning & Living program. Weeks went by without word from her case manager, Stewart or the Accelerated Learning & Living director about the Accelerated Learning & Living program or entrance into Lydia House.
With only three weeks remaining before she was to exit the program, Doby went to Stewart’s office without an appointment to make a complaint. Doby said it initially seemed as if the office staff were acting as gatekeepers, telling her that she needed her case manager’s permission to speak with Stewart.
“You’re telling me that I have to get permission from case manager, who I am [having] issues with, to go to her boss? “Where do they do that at?” Doby recalled saying.
She said she intentionally spoke with a raised voice so Stewart could hear her. She believed Stewart was there but out of sight. Doby said she got a phone call from the Accelerated Learning & Living program director not long after she left Stewart’s office.
Doby was eventually accepted into the Accelerated Learning & Living program, and is one of Harbor Interfaith’s shiniest success stories. But it wasn’t easy.
If not for her persistence, determination and faith, Doby and her two daughters could have wound up like Denise Vigil at Councilman Joe Buscaino’s homeless forum in September 2015.
Buscaino’s office screened a video documentary of four success stories out of 76 people his emergency response teams transitioned into permanent housing. Among those success stories was Vigil, whose struggles were well documented in Random Lengths News this past year. When the forum concluded, Vigil was in her sleeping bag outside of San Pedro City Hall building with Section 8 voucher for housing in her hand. Vigil eventually got into permanent housing, months after the forum.
Tisha Doby is a Harbor Interfaith success story, but the obstacles on the path to self-sufficiency are large and numerous.