Tony Perez has been living inside his cramped Chevy Cruz for almost 2 years. The fourth-year psychology student became homeless in the fall of 2015 when he was unable to obtain student loans, making him incapable of paying UCLA Housing’s hefty room and boarding bill.
Perez is the main provider for his family. He works almost all day from Thursdays to Sundays to pay rent and utility bills for his family’s single-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Between classes, work and his extracurricular actives, Perez was forced to make his Chevy Cruz his home.
There are many other homeless people like Perez in Westwood and UCLA. Although several organizations offer resources for those in need, such as People Assisting the Homeless, Students 4 Students and the Salvation Army, they typically only provide resources such as food, hygiene products and temporary housing.
However, in order to tackle the problem and produce a long-lasting solution, the Westwood Neighborhood Council and the Westwood Village Improvement Association must implement a “housing-first” approach that prioritizes permanent housing for those in need without setting preconditions that limit their access to a stable living space. Through a joint collaboration, these groups must look beyond business interests and formulate efforts to construct housing developments for the homeless in our community.
Specifically, the WWNC must collaborate with the Westwood Village Improvement Association to construct initiatives with stakeholders that would aim to construct housing for those in dire need. It may seem unfeasible to pursue such a venture, but working with real estate owners, neighborhood investors and local businesses can plausibly create more housing for our homeless population. They could develop housing in vacant spaces throughout Westwood, which would serve members of the neighborhood community and UCLA students.
The housing-first method seeks to bring shelter to the homeless, not to bring the homeless to shelters. It is based on the belief that individuals should have access to permanent housing before requiring them to fully handle more complex issues such as mental illness and drug addiction. In the early 1990s, volunteers in a New York homeless program implemented this approach and learned that many of the homeless in their community preferred the autonomy of living in the streets to the subjugation of living in shelters.
Many of our community’s homeless also have these feelings. According to John Williams, the Westwood Village Improvement Association’s new outreach specialist for the homeless, many of the homeless individuals he has encountered do not want to live in shelters because they feel as if they are forced to stay there. Homeless people want somewhere to live like everyone else – not a facility set aside for them where they would be under rules and overseers.
Many shelters require homeless individuals to be sober and even have identification or a referral from a social worker. Ultimately, these restrictions make homeless people feel unwelcome.
Perez echoed that sentiment, saying that living in shelters or crashing at a friend’s house is not always the best option for him.
“There are situations like mine, where you are working to support your family and do not have the means to support yourself,” he said. “It is difficult to reach out because I do not want to be a burden to anyone or their space. I have nothing to offer.”
And while the housing-first approach may seem unfeasible, many cities across the United States such as Houston, New Orleans and Phoenix eliminated veteran homelessness after implementing this method.
The housing-first policy has also proven effective in helping homeless people who have serious mental health problems or suffer from drug abuse. By covering the fundamental need for a stable living space, homeless individuals are able to deal with more complex processes such as rehabilitation. Surveys indicate that 85 percent of those who undergo the housing-first approach feel more empowered to improve their lives and are able to maintain a good quality of living.
It is therefore not unreasonable to have our more affluent neighborhood implement a similar system for Westwood’s and UCLA’s homeless – a population which is significantly smaller than those in other areas of Los Angeles County.
Furthermore, considering alternative options to tackling this issue is especially important because of our unpromising homeless outreach program put in place earlier this year. According to the Westwood Village Improvement Association’s Executive Director Andrew Thomas, only one person handles Westwood’s current outreach – Williams, who is required to work about 40 hours a week. The association’s current approach to addressing homelessness is woefully understaffed and unprepared, and imposing the housing-first initiative would be a better option.
And although the association’s efforts are commendable, having one man handle the job of helping the entire homeless population in Westwood is simply not enough to produce a long-lasting solution. Homelessness has been addressed by both the WWNC and the Westwood Village Improvement Association in prior years, but homelessness remains an issue and our current plans seem ineffective. A housing-first approach is a proven way to address homelessness, and in a smaller community such as Westwood, it could notably reduce the homeless population.
Thomas said many people in our homeless community want to stay in Westwood instead of relocating. Therefore, having free or low-income housing in the area would be strongly beneficial.
Those with power in our community must create a comprehensive plan to fight homelessness, not provide superficial assistance. Homelessness is such a difficult problem to tackle because each person has their own story and reasons for their situation – a housing-first approach is the only way to make sure each finds the shelter and personal care they need.