Harbor Interfaith Walks a Tightrope Between Large Caseloads, Politics
By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
While the city and the county of Los Angeles are taking steps forward to address homelessness, the entities seem to always take a step back. Their pursuits seem to address visibility of homeless people rather than the underlying issues related to their homelessness. Such has been the case with recent confiscations of tiny homes that activist Elvis Summers built in South Los Angeles.
Advocates for the homeless may have hoped that the threat of El Niño storms in the New Year would force city leaders to take immediate and substantive action in addressing homelessness.
The Los Angeles City Council has pledged to spend $100 million and the county has committed to working with cities in addressing the problem. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti requested and was denied disaster relief funds from Gov. Jerry Brown ahead of the expected storms.
In San Pedro and Harbor City, police are conducting regular encampment sweeps, only to find those same locations occupied by the same and more people.
In response, residents frustrated by the seemingly never-ending cycle push local officials to impose or enforce even more criminal procedures, making it difficult for homeless persons to stay in one place. Yet, they do.
Underlying these efforts is the thought that if homeless people don’t accept the help, they should be subjected to criminal enforcement procedures. Moreover, anyone helping homeless people, in any capacity, are in effect aiding and abetting criminal activity.
In this context and in this region, Harbor Interfaith has been pushed forward as the one agency that can best handle this crisis.
However, there are cases that have raised questions about how quickly people can get off the streets even under the best of circumstances. Denise Vigil is one example. She was a homeless woman, whose story was touted as a success during a September 2015 homeless forum in San Pedro, all while still sleeping outside of Councilman Joe Buscaino’s office with a Section 8 voucher in hand. She didn’t move into permanent housing until this year.
Another example involved a pregnant mother and two children who were living in a Harbor City encampment known as “The Pit” during this past holiday season. In that instance, local homeless advocates paid out of pocket for a hotel for the family before Harbor Interfaith was able to provide the hotel vouchers.
Harbor Interfaith is called upon to be the primary response in addressing homelessness in Los Angeles Harbor Area, even as it services a significant part of Southern Los Angeles County.
Harbor Interfaith’s Outreach Director Shari Weaver recently noted that few people outside of other service providers understand the challenges they face.
“There are a lot of similarities and very few differences,” Weaver said. “It always seems like no matter where you go in Los Angeles County, when you talk to your partners who are veterans in the same business, we all have the same challenges. Trying to see our way through [has] been frustrating.”
The challenges come from residents frustrated with the apparent growth and visibility of homelessness in town. Add to that, homeless advocates on the outside looking in either believe Harbor Interfaith is pre-selecting clients on criteria other than need and program requirements or not doing enough to catch clients who fall out of compliance with program requirements.
In its March 3 edition, Random Lengths recounted Tisha Dolby’s journey from the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row to a place of self-sufficiency at Harbor Interfaith. The challenges that Harbor Interfaith faces are more complicated than is reflected in Dolby’s story since the organization is called upon to help both the chronically homeless and the newly homeless.
“Generally, people who have been homeless for a year or more, have numerous episodes of homelessness, four or more in a three-year period, have disabling conditions whether it was substance abuse issues, mental health problems or complex health conditions,” Weaver said.
Weaver explained that Harbor Interfaith recently received funding to help people who have experienced short episodes of homelessness— people who experienced homelessness for less than a year—an attempt to put in place a safety net for people who have not been homeless as long.
The goal of the new funding is to shorten the number of times a person is homeless and shorten their experiences of being homeless. Both of these models are focused on permanent housing.
“It used to be when Harbor Interfaith managed its own shelter and it was tied to other resources, it wasn’t as long,” said Harbor Interfaith’s Executive Director Tahia Hayslet. “Now we do everybody that is in the South Bay. It may be even longer than 30 days…. The backlog is ridiculous at this point.”
Hayslet confronted the critiques she’s heard in the homeless advocate community that Harbor Interfaith is not serving all clients that come to their doors.
“We can’t control the system that exists,” she said. “The government shifted and said that one agency will serve as the lead. That’s fine. But imagine, everybody that is homeless is now being funneled through this agency. These are people we’ve never seen in the history of this agency…so it makes our job that much tougher. It’s not like we have the extra resources to deal with it. We still have the same staffing. There are 450 [people] that we’re working with.”
Hayslet explained that if a client is homeless in a city outside of the South Bay, they are supposed to stay in that particular city.
“If they can show some type of ties to this particular area then we’re supposed to take them,” she said.
Weaver noted that even when a client meets all of the criteria and do all they’re supposed to do, finding a place for them to live is still difficult.
“Take for example the HUD-VASH of the Homeless Veterans initiative [a program] for veterans with a dishonorable discharge on their record, where we see the hang up is not the voucher, but finding a unit that would take that voucher,” Weaver said. ”
Weaver said they have been really good developing strong partnerships with property owners and following up with clients who have gone through their program.
“Property owners like the fact that they are getting a tenant who is not only doing their part, but now they have somebody that follows up and troubleshoots, provide case management and resources to make sure that the tenant is staying in compliance with the lease,” Weaver said.
She notes that when Harbor Interfaith succeeds in that area, property owners are more likely to offer available units to clients. She wishes the frequency of that scenario happening was greater, but a rental market with a 2 percent vacancy rate hasn’t been helpful.
As if the state of affordable housing wasn’t enough of a headache, the actual work of balancing Harbor Interfaith’s relationships with its clients, community advocates and organizational supporters presents its own struggles.
Hayslet noted that Harbor Interfaith gets the greatest grief over its shelter’s 80 percent savings requirement. During their stay in Harbor Interfaith Services 90-day program, clients are obliged to place 80 percent of their income in an account that the agency holds—a nest-egg of sorts. The money is returned to clients when they leave Interfaith Services and is intended to serve as a foundation to save for future.
“Our program prior to this new system has always required a saving of 80 percent,” Hayslet said. “A part of it is to teach them how to survive on just 20 percent. That’s because a lot of people end up in a homeless where they are paying 95 percent of their income on rent. So it’s never going to last. We’re saying that in a worst case scenario, if you have to pay 80 percent of your income toward rent… you can’t even touch this money for three months.”
Hayslet cited another reason why advocates find the strict adherence to the 80 percent savings requirement.
“There’s an exception to every rule,” she said. “So, if someone comes in and there’s an 80 percent requirement, but if you needed to buy prescription medication, why wouldn’t we allow you to? But you have to communicate with us.
“What generates the most complaints about the requirement is that advocates don’t understand that all you have to do is communicate with us and tell us why you need the money. If you have to pay your storage. Allow us to do it. This is the first time ever we had the funds to pay for storage.”
Hayslet noted that they got funding in July 2015 [for paying for storage].
She went on to say that clients often hide what’s going on with them rather than communicate with their case managers.
“The purpose of having a case manager is so that they can get you everything you need,” she said. “It is their job to connect you to resources. You have the right to file a grievance and say that you’re not getting the services that you’re supposed to get.” But between being over worked and so many people coming into the system it’s easy to see how the process breaks down.
Hayslet admits that Harbor Interfaith under the Coordinating Entry System is at a disadvantage. They have two case managers with 60 caseloads each.
“How does one person case manage 60 people? You can barely keep up.”
She also noted that the funding exists to provide clients with assistance, but the question is how to provide effective case management with limited resources?
Harbor Interfaith has one case manager as a housing and retention specialist for families that have received housing. The other handles intake for every family that comes to Harbor Interfaith.
Weaver and Hayslet agree that the past couple of years have been particularly challenging, noting the community’s involvement can be a help and a hinderance.
“We want to help educate our communities,” Weaver said. “But when it’s more of, ‘why can’t you do this differently?’ We have guidelines we have to work within. If we don’t work within those guidelines you can seriously hurt the funding that we are getting down here.”
Random Lengths recounted Dolby’s journey through Coordinated Entry System from Union Rescue Mission to Harbor Interfaith’s Accelerated Learning & Living program.
No longer under the immediate threat of sleeping in the street with her teenage daughters, Dolby is excelling in school and working toward the life she’s been dreaming of creating for her daughters. What’s undeniably true is that she wouldn’t be in this position without Harbor Interfaith.