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Jun 06, 2011
Q+A with Los Angeles Housing Advocate Richard Myers
Ever wondered what it's like to work on the front lines of ending homelessness? Maybe you've watched the Campaign's housing tally go steadily up, but wondered what the day-to-day process of housing homeless people really looks like.
Richard Myers has an extraordinary track record as a housing advocate with the 100,000 Homes Campaign in Los Angeles. Since February, he has personally helped nine people out of homelessness and into permanent housing.
(Above right: Myers (left) and a recent client, William, display new cleaning supplies purchased for William's apartment.)
Last week, Campaign supporter Clayton Long caught up with Myers to ask what his job entails and why it matters. His answers are below:
Q: What’s a housing advocate?
A: I perform street to home outreach for the homeless population of downtown Los Angeles. Basically, I work with members of skid row, trying to get them off the streets and into permanent housing specifically designed for L.A.’s most vulnerable individuals. My job is to find people who are interested in permanent housing, and if they qualify, to help them complete the necessary steps toward making that goal a reality.
I currently have 11 clients I’m working with. Two are 30-plus year veterans of homelessness on skid row.
Q: Why is a Housing Advocate’s role important?
I met with [100,000 Homes Campaign Director] Becky Kanis before I’d ever been out on the streets. She told me about an early client they sent out to get his own documentation for housing. Later they were leaving the office and they found him crying outside the building. The guy couldn’t read, so he was giving up on himself. Becky told me this story to explain why the system is so hard for a lot of people to navigate. ‘We want you to be there with these people every step of the way, from the time we start until they’re housed,’ she told me. So now, even after they’re housed, if they want to go grocery shopping, I’m on it.
Q: How do you find new clients?
A: Most of my day is spent out in the community, and I usually start early. The city allows the homeless to use the street as a resting place from 9 PM until 6 AM. Generally people here are sleeping in tents, but some are out in the open. Around 6 AM they start packing up, and that’s normally when I arrive to interview potential clients for the program.
Q: What steps are involved to find housing for a new client?
A: The first step is to prepare the necessary documentation for permanent supportive housing intake. Here in L.A., we place a lot of clients with the Skid Row Housing Trust, which owns and manages a group of 22 buildings in the downtown area for formerly homeless tenants.
Some clients already have documentation (I.D., social security card), and others don’t. The first step involves getting the proper documents together, and obtaining a certificate of vulnerability from a doctor before the client applies and interviews for housing.
Next, the client goes to property management, where they’re given a rundown of the building rules to participate in program. Once the application is submitted, the process usually takes a couple of weeks. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone get denied if we can get the paperwork right.
If they’re approved, we go to the Housing Authority, an organization that works with the federal government to subsidize tenants’ housing fees. Most supportive housing buildings provide income-based housing, regardless of the income amount. The potential tenant agrees to pay 30% of their monthly income toward rent. The Housing Authority pays the remaining 70%.
The Housing Authority goes through all the forms, and if everything’s in order, the client gets approved that day and gets a voucher for their new apartment. Then it’s back to the Skid Row Housing Trust, where they can move in immediately.
Q: Do people stay in permanent supportive housing?
A: Yes. Places like the Skid Row Housing Trust provide doctors, psychologists, AA meetings, SSI, and many other supportive services right there in the building. All those services are on-site. In some places, tenants are required to attend group meetings each week. Each tenant gets a case manager. These facilities employ tons of different people, including members of the community. They have a very high success rate of keeping people in permanent housing.
Q: Did you have any previous experience with advocacy before you started this job?
A: I was new to it when I got hired. It was something I had never done. I met with [Los Angeles Campaign Coordinator] Leslie Wise, and she told me the details of the job. I thought, “Yeah, cool. I can do this.”
Q: What drew you to advocacy?
A: Many of my clients are active in their drug and alcohol addictions. I’ve faced a long struggle with drug use myself. From 1997 to 2009 I spent most of my time in the penitentiary. I think the only reason I was never homeless is that I couldn’t stay out of prison long enough.
Most people can’t relate to where these people are at and what they’re going through. I don’t think you could take a fresh college grad with a psych degree and have them necessarily make connections with these people. You have to be able to get to these people and know that you relate to where they’re coming from.
This is my way to give back. For many years I was the taker, now it’s my chance to root for the underdog. Even though I didn’t take advantage in the past, there was always someone there to help me out. Now this is my chance.
Q: How do you establish trust with your clients?
A: Word of mouth is our greatest asset. Next week I’ll house my ninth person since February. Most of my clients had been homeless at least 5-8 years, including three people who’d slept together in tents in the same spot for many years. We refer to them as anchors – people who are well known in the community. We’ll house our third anchor this week.
When an anchor gets housing, it really helps to convince other people. Once they’re in a unit, they never have to leave. It’s long-term, permanent housing. Word gets around, and soon enough people drop their reluctance and start to get curious about what we’re doing.
Most people know about these opportunities, but they’re skeptical. Aside from our program, there’s a really long waiting list. If three brand new people walked into a permanent supportive housing site in L.A. tomorrow, they might be told, ‘We’re not taking applications at this time.’ It can feel like there are just too many people to serve. A lot of people think it’s possible, just not for them. We try to show them it’s possible.