Yup that’s me! A little over 21 years ago, I lived on the streets of Los Angeles homeless and helpless. I sold photos of my pet Iguana to tourists in front of the Chinese Theater to survive. Los Angeles Police Officers called me “Lizard Man”, and “The Lizard Man of Hollywood Blvd” was born.
Hard to imagine that prior to homelessness I had a great job in television syndication. But due to a severe drug problem, I ended up homeless.
I rebuilt my life, buying a three-bedroom house with a new car in the garage. I had a pool in the backyard and a cushy marketing job with success on the horizon. Then the economy crashed and I lost everything again except my sobriety.
In the fall of 2008, the only job I could find was a three-month temporary position working at the Glendale Winter Shelter. I was eventually hired on fulltime as an outreach case manager. During the winter months, my position shifted to family outreach case manager. For the next four years, I worked in homeless services helping those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.
During that time, I began using social media to empower homeless people to share their own stories. To end homelessness, we need to listen to the experts. And the experts are people experiencing homelessness: living in a tent, under a bridge, in a car or at a weekly-rate hotel not fit for children.
My work quickly took off and I founded Invisible People, a digital storytelling platform exposing the realities of homelessness and solutions to end it. Invisible People is the only education-based nonprofit working on a national level to educate people about homelessness to affect policy change.
Over the last decade, I have traveled to more than 300 cities meeting thousands of people experiencing homelessness. I have worked with foreign, national and local governments along with homeless service providers around the world.
Breaking Through the Bureaucratic Wall
When I worked as an LA-based outreach case manager, the bureaucracy was maddening. There was always a struggle to get people to work together. I used to say the miracle wasn’t that a person got off the streets, but that the system actually worked. A lot of well-intentioned people were giving their all to end homelessness. However, there was little coordination between communities and service providers.
Prime example: Los Angeles County is divided up into eight Service Planning Areas (SPA). Simply put, a SPA is a specific geographic region within the county. Eight years ago, there was an attempt to get a single coordinated intake form for all homeless service providers to use within the eight SPAs. However, no one would agree or compromise, so it never went anywhere.
In 2013, I remember walking into United Way of Greater Los Angeles and seeing all eight SPAs working together to develop a coordinated entry process. To me, it was a miracle – you would have thought I saw the tooth fairy.
MEDIA: To read the post I wrote about that day click here.
A New Hope – We Can End Homelessness
I currently live in Syracuse, NY where I help take care of my mother. But my heart and passion to end homelessness will always be in Los Angeles. I visit as often as I can. Because I leave for extended periods of time, I return to the city I love with new eyes. While I see how homelessness has spread, I also see the positive changes being made to end it.
A lot of progress has been made since 2013. This past November, I was honored to attend the Annual Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Homelessness Convening. The guest list included many stakeholders working to end homelessness in Los Angeles.
During this event, I learned the city and county were working together and collaboration between nonprofits was being embraced. Homeless service organizations talked about the need for flex funding and peer support programs. The emphasis was on providing homeless people with adequate support so they not only survive, but thrive after being placed into housing. I was thrilled to see a new Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) actively listening to community nonprofits.
On Feb. 8, I attended the first annual Homeless Initiative Conference County of Los Angeles. I thought seeing all the SPAs in one room working together was astonishing in 2013. This event, with representatives from many of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County along with homeless service providers was truly a miracle. There was a spirit of collaboration I have never seen in any other community. Most importantly, Los Angeles County was actively listening to the municipal representatives and homeless service providers. It was truly a huge step in the right direction to end homelessness.
Working Together – Vote Yes to Measure H
There was never a united strategy. This is one of the main reasons homelessness has spread in Los Angeles County. We needed one coordinated plan involving all stakeholders working together to end homelessness. Now there is!
Barriers that used to work against getting people off the streets have been removed. The top-down momentum combined with key leaders listening to the people doing the work can end homelessness in Los Angeles County.
Now we need your help.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has placed Measure H on the March 7 ballot. Funded through a proposed ¼-cent County sales tax, Measure H would generate approximately $355 million annually to be used exclusively on proven efforts that reduce and prevent homelessness. These efforts include mental health, housing services, job counseling and substance abuse treatment.
If approved, Measure H will help an estimated 45,000 families and individuals move from homelessness to permanent housing within the first five years. It would also enable 30,000 more to avoid becoming homeless.
By voting YES to Measure H, you will help support an initiative that reduces and prevents homelessness.
I believe with all of my heart that Los Angeles County can and will end homelessness. Do people have emergencies? Yes. Do people sleep for days in between places? Of course. But the kind of homelessness most people are familiar with is the kind we can end. These instances can be prevented when our system provides the resources to care for people with permanently disabling conditions. Approving Measure H will provide the services to end AND prevent homelessness.
Help people get off the streets. Save their lives. Vote YES to Measure H on March 7.