The bone-chilling wind blew through the freeway underpass; I felt as if I was in Chicago, not sunny Southern California. I was at the off ramp where I sometimes take a side-streets-detour from LA's infamous morning traffic jams.
But I wasn't sitting in my car sipping coffee. I was with one of our street outreach teams, two members of our staff who spend their weekdays driving around this urban neighborhood, surrounding the University of Southern California, engaging with people living on the streets.
This underpass, close enough for a USC quarterback to throw a hail-Mary pass to campus, was packed with vinyl tents along the sidewalks. In the past year, a few dozen tents were set up by people who could find no where else to live in sprawling Los Angeles.
Throughout Los Angeles County, these tiny tent encampments are now everywhere.
The first tent we walked to contained a woman, probably in her 60's, but who knows how old she really is given how street living ages even youth. She sat among a pile of blankets and clothes, and told our street team that she was sick. She sat there like she was sitting in her living room of a suburban ranch house somewhere miles from this frigid urban neighborhood. I was told she had been living on the streets for years, if not decades.
She smiled at me, as if this lifestyle was normal. But in my twenty years of running a homeless agency, I knew living in a flimsy tent, among dirty clothes, with some sort of short-term or perhaps long-term sickness was not emblematic of good living. Certainly, Martha Stewart would not approve.
She was very hospitable and offered us a bottle of water. I'm guessing this was how she was raised way back when she was younger, when visitors came to her family's home.
Down a few blocks, was a tiny, beat up old van, parked on a small side street near a lot where the local Mercedes Benz dealer stored their luxury $60,000 vehicles. Inside this make-shift home on wheels was a man that our outreach workers had been meeting with for months. He was on a waiting list to receive a housing voucher. He rented this van from someone else, paying with money from his recycling endeavors.
He seemed to be waiting for our team members' visit, perhaps wanting to hear good news about his quest for housing.
Throughout the morning, we talked with a handful of people who our outreach team had been meeting with. Their goal was to get them into permanent housing.
I asked them why these people won't come into a temporary shelter. The answers were simple: they had already been in a shelter; they have integrated into their own community of friends in their neighborhood; they felt safer with people who they believed would support and protect them.
But all of them still wanted a permanent home. Not a shelter bed, not a tent, not a van. Not a sleeping bag on the sidewalk.
They were all currently on some waiting list to be housed. But the bureaucracy of getting housing is extremely difficult. More like obnoxious. You have to wait in line at numerous government offices. Fill out paperwork, like you were buying a home. Attend interview after interview, like you were being grilled for a six-figure job.
Even I, who has a Master's Degree, would probably fail in this bureaucratic housing search.
So our experienced outreach workers compassionately, patiently, tenderly, work with these people, day after day, in the search for housing. They help fill out paperwork, drive them to appointments, counsel them between stop lights, and regularly visit them to make sure they are still in their tent, van, sleeping bag.
A decade ago, the agency that I lead built a multi-million dollar homeless service center just outside of downtown Los Angeles. It was a cutting edge facility filled with wonderful services, all in one location for our clients. But being out on the streets with our teams, I've realized that the people living in tents, vans, and sleeping bags would have a difficult time traveling to our center.
In reality, we should not expect them to come to us. We should continue going to them. Even if we have to search for the older woman on the streets because she normally sits on the bus bench at Jefferson and Figueroa, but this morning she had vanished. We continue to go to her because our outreach team is determined to link her to services. Even if we have to spend a whole morning sitting with a person at the DMV to get his identification card. Even if it seems like the waiting, traveling, talking, and caring is tedious. This is how we move people from homeless and into homes. We show them we care and we show them there is hope, since many of these people do not know how to ask for help or where to even look for it.
Because in order for these people to get back into a home, we need to make house calls. On the streets.