Homelessness is a vicious cycle.
And for those without support, it can be both a cause and effect of mental illness.
In 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles County had the second-highest rate of unsheltered homeless people in the country, at 70.3%. Additionally, 26.2% of sheltered people who were homeless are estimated to experience a severe mental illness. That’s no small number of people left without a home, support system or health resources.
The LA Times recently reported that in the past three years, an estimated 39 board-and-care homes, which provide housing for low-income adults with mental illnesses, have closed in LA County. The rapid closure of these facilities leaves the individuals they accommodate at high risk of homelessness. Bed space is something that’s desperately needed, given other county measures to provide more housing have yielded next to nothing.
These issues are often forgotten about until they reach an extreme.
But in LA County, it seems this extreme has finally captured the attention of local officials. An outside consulting firm hired by the LA County Board of Supervisors recently conducted a study, which recommended doubling the housing subsidy in LA County.
And for UCLA, this is no exception.
LA County needs to subsidize the increase from 2,000 to 4,000 residents, as the Board of Supervisors recommended, so as to not leave one of the most vulnerable populations at increased risk. And UCLA could have a part to play. By collaborating with the city to subsidize housing in the Westwood area, the university could help students in the context of a countywide prerogative. These board-and-care homes are a necessary buffer, and for many, a last resort before the streets.
This year, it was reported that Westwood has the highest rent in California. It goes without saying that for low-income students at risk of homelessness, their college town is nearly impossible to live in.
And LA County is not making it any easier for UCLA students. On July 30, Los Angeles City Council reinstated a policy that prohibits people, including students, from sleeping in their cars near schools. The county can provide all the increased subsidies it wants – but its hypocrisy becomes clear if it fails to support low-income college students with simple legislative changes in the interim.
Kathleen Len, a fourth-year molecular, cell, and developmental biology student and external vice president of Bruin Shelter, a student-run organization that provides temporary housing to college students who are experiencing homelessness, said the lack of knowledge regarding mental illness and homelessness is part of the problem.
“Student housing insecurity is a big issue and people tend to not think about it because it is an invisible problem,” Len said.
But suggestions from community members have largely been ignored. The Undergraduate Students Association Council and the North Westwood Neighborhood Council have both called on UCLA to provide safe parking spaces for students experiencing homelessness. UCLA has yet to address this call to action.
Ashraf Beshay, head of the Community Health and Homelessness Committee in the NWWNC, said a possible solution to alleviate the homelessness crisis in Westwood is temporary housing.
“We can build BRIDGE housing, which is temporary housing for folks who are homeless, where services are provided that include mental health support, employment guidance and dealing with issues like addiction,” Beshay said.
The extreme conditions of homelessness – from lack of physical safety to limited access to medical treatment – often exacerbate the severity of mental illness. Without support, people with severe mental illnesses often struggle to secure housing, leaving little options – ultimately perpetuating this cycle.
And removing a last resort for some will only increase the already high rates of homelessness.
At board-and-care facilities, services include 24-hour staffing, food and the administration of medication. At these facilities, the fee is $35 a day per resident, which is usually covered by state and federal funding. But in the current market, this rate is too low for facilities to continue operating.
And at UCLA, this issue hits closer to home than students might think.
Facilities near Westwood have also been closing down. In 2017, Brentwood Manor, a local board-and-care facility, was bought by a developer to create a boutique hotel.
On campus, students who are experiencing homelessness or mental illness are confronted with a lack of available resources.
Students seeking the help of UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services can’t afford to wait weeks for an appointment, especially those experiencing severe mental illness. Students who need support the most are falling through the cracks when their own school’s resources are lacking – let alone the city’s dismal efforts combined with UCLA’s unwillingness to mitigate them.
Anushi Patel, a second-year biology student, said raising awareness regarding mental illness and homelessness is part of the solution.
“As a student, I personally don’t know where I would turn to if I were struggling with these kinds of things,” Patel said.
Because if a multibillion-dollar institution like UCLA continues to face a shortage of mental health services and services for people experiencing homelessness, some students may be looking to the City of Los Angeles for help that isn’t there.
Subsidies aren’t cheap to provide. But considering the millions LA County has spent on an issue that isn’t getting better, failing to subsidize more board-and-care facilities will guarantee this issue will be made worse – and a lack of preemptive measures will end up costing LA County more in the future.
The problem of homelessness has been staring LA in the face for years, but the county turned the other cheek while housing continued to fail.
And now that it’s starting to make eye contact, it’ll be looking right at the people it has hurt the most.