Housing / 2013

volunteers housing the homeless

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition

For 25 years the all-volunteer GWHFC has helped the homeless of Hollywood and West Hollywood survive life in the street by serving them a fantastic meal every night, seven nights a week, which we make entirely from high-end food donated to us all over town. With the GWHFC/UCLA Mobile Clinic, which we founded in 2001, we help them take care of their myriad medical and legal concerns. Now, we'd like to focus on getting them OFF the street, one by one, into safe, clean, and attractive apartments of their own choosing -- not public housing and not slum housing, but apartments which we wouldn't mind living in ourselves (just as the meals we serve are planned and prepared to our taste, as if we were going to eat them, not they). Over the past 18 months we've "housed" twelve chronically homeless "clients" in that way, and we've come to realize that we are better at it than any of the dozen or so public and private agencies which use up enormous amounts of money in salary and overhead to do the same thing. Why are we better? Because we are volunteers, and we come to know the people we serve organically: we meet them over a really good meal, and little by little they tell us about themselves, and we are able to figure out which of them are ready to join us back in the mainstream. We aren't social scientists, and we aren't bureaucrats -- we are a cross-section of the community much like they are, and it is no wonder that they come to trust us and we come to trust them, because they know we are doing what we do out of love for our fellow man and for no other reason.


What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Having been called into being as volunteers by the City of West Hollywood in 1987, we suffered the awful realization just two years later that West Hollywood, as a political entity, wasn’t ready to defend a group that was helping the homeless. We were accused of perpetuating homelessness, encouraging criminal behavior, despoiling the neighborhood, and destroying property values – all this for serving hungry people something to eat once a day – and we were effectively run out of town and into Hollywood, suddenly an orphan group of volunteers but with a reputation in the media for having fought city hall and survived. From that point forward we have only gotten braver, because little by little we came to know that there were a lot of people like us in the community who wanted to do something “good” but didn’t know where to begin. We have since fought any number of running battles just to keep going – against neighbors and neighbors’ groups, against politicians and other “social service agencies,” and, just two years ago against a company which sued us for creating “a public and a private nuisance.” When that happened we were defended pro bono for eight months by a partner and four associates of one of the largest law firms in town, and at the end of it the judge in the case threw it out with prejuidice. We are now stronger and more effective than we have ever been, and we continue to grow stronger still. We serve an ever-better meal, to between 150 and 200 people every night. We have two or three new volunteers coming to us every day, and our ability to network in the community at large is nothing short of extraordinary. As far as we know, no other ragtag grass-roots organization formed to help the homeless has lasted as long as we have and attracted so much support. And yet we are still at the takeoff point, in that every new volunteer who means it has a new idea as to how we can reach deeper into the community and how we can avail ourselves of its strength to do more for the weakest among us.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles The Department of Social Services of The City of West Hollywood The Social Security Administration The Department of Social Services of the County of Los Angeles St. Victor Roman Catholic Church in West Hollywood St. Paul Roman Catholic Church in Westwood The Hollyood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for West Hollywood GETTLOVE PATH HousingWorks The Business Improvement District (BID) for the Media District The Hollywood Business Owners’ Alliance and Hwd4ward Our administrative umbrella agency Special Service for Groups

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

We will measure it one homeless person at a time – who is no longer homeless but back with the rest of us: indoors, with a place to sleep at night, a place to wash and keep clean, a place to be warm and safe and to store clothes and other things, and a place to receive friends and family, as if having friends and family again wasn’t just a matter of figuring out how to survive but a matter of living and enjoying life.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

Getting fifteen chronically homeless people off the street and into permanent housing will (1) vastly reduce the amount of taxpayer money spent to take care of them IN the street – in shelters, in emergency rooms and hospitals, in police stations and jails and prisons; (2) since the effort will be entirely volunteer and OF the community, it will draw the community as a whole into a closer relationship with the homeless generally and help to do away with the notion that we live in one world and they live in another; (3) it will save fifteen perfectly good people from a downward spiral from which most of us would be hard pressed to pull out and, in the case of a number of them, it will return them to a position of productivity alongside the rest of us: to jobs, to social and political interactions of all kinds, and (sure enough) to VOLUNTEERING to help others who are still on the downward spiral.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

Success in 2050 would be the citizens of Los Angeles – not the politicians, not the activists, not the social service agencies, but the citizens – long since having awakened to the fact that life is only wonderful if the wonder of it can be shared and celebrated as widely as possible for the greater good. In the latter half of the Twentieth Century political and economic systems were created ostensibly to make that happen, and it simply didn’t. Now we have another chance: not for ideological reasons or with a view to creating yet another enforceable system, but because there is no greater social logic than doing good for its own sake, we should all follow our instincts and pitch in. The number of volunteers who want to join the GWHFC is growing in geometric proportions. By 2050 will they and others like them have nothing more to do, because people will no longer be living in the street? Not a chance. But there is every chance that if we keep going as we are going now, we will be able to move the newly homeless off the street almost as fast as they come to it, and it will be easier to do it than it is now, because most of the community will be engaged with us in the process. We will ALL be volunteers.