The whole mess started around noon on a Sunday in March, when two homeless men on L.A.’s Skid Row got into some sort of spat. Something about a tent, or the location of a tent, or the contents of a tent. Typical Skid Row stuff, the kind of thing you can’t avoid seeing in a 50-block area where 1,500 of the city’s most destitute souls—most of them mentally ill or drug addicts or both—sleep in their own filth and throw elbows just to survive. So there was an argument, and someone called the cops, and when they arrived the officers approached Charly Keunang, a Cameroonian national known among fellow street dwellers as Africa. Video footage captured by a civilian and a surveillance camera tells us the rest. Keunang is pretty worked up when the cops arrive. Uncooperative, he retreats to his tent. The cops—four of them—pull Keunang out. A scuffle ensues, and in short order police take the man to the ground. They hold him, try to pin and subdue him, punch him in the head, and attempt to restrain his flailing legs. One of the officers yells something unintelligible about a gun and then, a moment later—shots. No fewer than five of them. Keunang dies on the sidewalk.
MORE in TakePart Features: Survivor’s Crusade Reveals a Plague of Errors in Sex Offender Registries
Had he not been living on the street, Keunang would likely be alive today. The timing of his death couldn’t have been more poignant or tragic, coinciding as it did with the growth of an initiative called Home for Good. Launched in 2010 by United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Home for Good is the city’s most concerted effort to solving homelessness in decades. It uses a radical method called Housing First, which several other cities—none nearly as big, or with anything close to L.A.’s homeless population—have been trying with surprising success.
The premise of Housing First is both counterintuitive and palm-to-the-forehead obvious. The simple part goes like this: Give the chronically homeless what they need most—homes. There’s a clear humanitarian reason for doing this, but what’s changing minds now is data indicating that the expense of managing homeless populations is far greater than the expense of just housing them. There’s the tough-to-quantify cost to the local economy—what economists call an “opportunity cost”—of homelessness detracting from a city’s appeal to residents and tourists. Then, every time someone decides not to go into a store to buy a bag of Takis Fuego because there’s a homeless person sleeping next to the doorway—that’s an opportunity cost to the business owner and every entity she pays taxes to. Add to those the price of the homeless cycling in and out of hospitals, jails, prisons, shelters, emergency rooms, halfway houses, courts, probation offices, drug treatment centers, the VA, and whatever other institutions bear the logistical and financial brunt of homelessness. So far, cities that have tried Housing First have saved money.
The part that’s harder to grasp is that beneficiaries of Housing First don’t have to “earn” their new permanent residences. They aren’t required, as they typically have been, to become “housing ready” in temporary shelters, halfway houses, or rehab facilities. The roofs over their heads aren’t contingent on sobriety, community service, a steady job, or visits with a therapist. Housing First recipients are not discouraged from addressing addiction, mental health issues, or whatever led them to, or kept them on, the streets, but neither are they required, or even expected, to “fix” themselves. People who qualify for Housing First are simply given a permanent place to live. No strings attached.
The apartments in which Housing First beneficiaries are placed are paid for in large part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and, to a lesser extent, by money from state, county, and city budgets. Nonprofits and philanthropies kick in some funds as well. Essentially, HUD provides housing authorities throughout the country with money to fight homelessness, and each decides how to spend it. Those that want to try Housing First and have minimal vacancy might put the money toward constructing new apartments. Others might buy and refurbish existing buildings, perhaps coinvesting with a developer. At the same time, those who work with the homeless search for candidates for Housing First. It’s not always free; HUD requires that participants receiving government subsidies such as disability payments contribute toward their rent, which varies. They can still qualify even if they have no income, though they will nonetheless need to figure out how to eat.
Using the Housing First approach, New Orleans in 2014 housed all 227 of its homeless vets; now officials can focus on prevention and efficiently help veteran service members who newly become homeless. Things are going well with the city’s campaign to fight nonveteran homelessness too. After Hurricane Katrina, 11,600 people there were homeless by 2007. While many recovered, others needed help. Through its Housing First program, New Orleans is on track to meet the end-of-2016 goal of placing virtually all its chronically homeless—defined as people who’ve been on the streets or in shelters for a year or more—under a permanent roof. To be clear, it’s impossible to eradicate homelessness. There will always be someone down on his luck. That’s why people in the industry use the term “functional zero,” which means that a city has the housing and infrastructure in place to find a permanent residence for anyone who qualifies, whether it’s a veteran, someone who’s chronically homeless, or another candidate who might be eligible under a particular program.
Then there’s Salt Lake City. Getting anything accomplished in Utah requires the political will not just of conservatives but of the highest ranks of the state’s other bastion of orthodoxy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s who bought in and helped make Housing First a reality there. “When homeless advocates first told me about it, I thought, ‘These guys are smoking something—you can’t end homelessness,’ ” Lloyd Pendleton, the manager of the LDS Church Welfare Department at the time Housing First was being considered in Salt Lake, told me. A former corporate executive who’s always up for a challenge, Pendleton said he thought, “If anyone can do this, it’s me.” In 2006, he became the director of Utah’s Homeless Task Force; under its Housing First campaign, chronic homelessness there has dropped from 1,932 people to 178 over a decade, putting Salt Lake, too, on track for its December 2016 goal of functional zero.
Housing First practitioners have made giant strides toward ending chronic homelessness elsewhere, including Denver, Seattle, and a long list of smaller cities. But Salt Lake City’s entire homeless population was about the size of the homeless population just in downtown L.A. and a tenth the size of L.A.'s chronically homeless population. Success in a city where more than 44,000 homeless are spread out across 4,000 square miles is another challenge entirely.
Charles Henry, who was homeless for 20 years until he was identified as eligible for a low-cost apartment under Los Angeles' Home for Good program, gives a tour of his new residence and where he used to sleep. (Video by Mike Kessler; edited by Scott Ash; produced by Connor Ficcadenti)
The bed that Charles Henry slept in from 2010 through 2014 is approximately three feet wide by six feet long. It consists of nothing but dirt, just like the one next to it, where his best friend, a 27-year-old paranoid schizophrenic named Danny, still sleeps. He and Danny made their beds by hand. The spots are on a narrow terrace of a short, steep hill in a park next to a freeway in North Hollywood. Twenty feet away, cars whiz by or stand parking-lot still, depending on the time of day. Homeless for more than two decades, Henry has the experience to know a good spot when he finds one. Drivers are unable to see the small encampment, which is hidden by brush and shaded by tall trees. Sometimes garbage tossed from vehicles lands on the site, but litter is a small sacrifice for a place that’s out of view of police, other homeless people, or thugs—like the guy who bashed Henry’s face with a brick, or the kids who kicked his teeth in, took his fortune of $6, and left him for dead while he was trying to sleep just a few hundred yards from here. It doesn’t hurt that the bivouac is in walking- or bus-riding distance of Dumpsters, convenience stores, shelters, public bathrooms, running water, and other amenities one needs to stay alive when homeless.
Henry is a slim 63-year-old man with leathery skin; his sunken, seen-it-all green eyes convey skepticism toward others, shame for his choices, anger at himself, and a longing to feel any other way. “I spent the first half of my life running from things I did,” he said during one of our visits a few months ago. “Then I spent the second half of my life running from things I didn’t do. I was a bad person…a bad person.”
“For a while I slept in my own car,” he said. “But it got taken away. I’ve been on the streets all over the city. In doorways, alongside freeways, in vacant cars, Skid Row, everywhere.”
About a year ago, Henry found his way to a shelter in North Hollywood, where a counselor and a caseworker determined that he was worthy of a roof over his head and the dignity that a real home affords a person. It took eight months of jumping through various bureaucratic hoops and waiting for a unit to become available under Home for Good. He moved into his new place last November. “I haven’t had keys to anything in 25 years,” he said. “I was laying here last night in bed thinking, ‘God…thank you.’ ” Without Home for Good, he says, he’d still be living by the freeway on-ramp—“or dead.”
His building is a three-story affordable housing construction in a middle-class part of town about five miles from the park where he used to live. It looks like a newer dorm on a liberal arts college campus. When we first met, he’d been in the new digs for about a month. His apartment is a humble one-room affair with concrete floors, cinder-block walls, a north-facing window, a kitchenette, a small round table with two chairs, and a few stacks of magazines and paperbacks. He didn’t have much to bring with him when he moved in—no shopping cart or bulging trash bags full of belongings. The shelter helped him get the place furnished and fronted him some cash for a set of sheets. “I keep it simple and pretty clean,” he told me. “I don’t need much.”
Henry speaks slowly and carefully, and a cocktail of psych meds and methadone causes him to slur a bit. Over tacos down the street from his apartment, he told me he used to be handsome and eloquent and sharp. “I read extensively; I wrote well,” he said. He made this statement as if I needed convincing.
According to the most recent national homeless count, approximately 610,000 people in the U.S. are homeless on any given night. That may not seem like a big number, but if you emptied the cities of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, or Miami of people and tried to fill any of them with all of America’s homeless, there wouldn’t be room. Still, the number is somewhat misleading because it’s just a snapshot; around 2.5 million children experience homelessness over the course of a year.
About 85 percent of homeless people in America are fleetingly down-and-out. They lost a job, couldn’t make the rent, couch-surfed until they overstayed their welcome, or stopped asking for help out of pride. Some of them might have been forced out of the homes of family or friends because landlords enforced occupancy caps. These are the temporarily homeless people who bounce back—sometimes on their own, sometimes through temporary, government-subsidized programs or with help from charitable or faith-based organizations.
The other 15 percent are chronically homeless—the year-or-more folks like Henry. In the scheme of things, housing 84,000 people is not that expensive—figuring $1,000 a month rent for each of them, it comes to about $1 billion, or roughly what humanity has spent to see Furious 7. But what’s keeping us from solving homelessness has always been about more than money. Explanations for allowing people in the richest nation in the history of civilization to live in conditions that Neanderthals recognized as unsafe, unhealthy, and undesirable basically come down to one of three things:
1. It’s their fault, so they deserve it.
2. It’s their choice.
3. They’re not a good investment.
It’s hard to change anyone’s mind about the first two explanations. The third—the cost-benefit component—is what Housing First dispels. In the past, it’s been assumed that before the chronically homeless can be given homes, the issues keeping them on the street need to be addressed. Drug-addicted or otherwise mentally unstable people, the thinking went, couldn’t possibly stay in an apartment, but once they get their shit together, they’ll have proved they’re worth the public dollars. This paternalistic, up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy disregarded the possibility that it might be especially hard to get one’s shit together when one is homeless.
“A lot of programs were started in the 1980s, but their philosophy was that we need to fix people’s problems so they can get it together and find housing,” Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the Washington, D.C.–based National Alliance to End Homelessness, told me. What well-intentioned lawmakers and service providers failed to acknowledge, Berg said, is that “lack of housing is usually the barrier. It’s a lot harder to fix your problems when you don’t have a home. Once people have a home, they can better deal with their problems.”