SGV Connect 50 – Homelessness Solutions in the San Gabriel Valley

Damien and Kris Talk with Shawn Morrissey and Teresa Eilers

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This week, SGV Connect will be a little different than usual, in both the interview format and the topic discussed. Both Damien and Kris sat down with Shawn Morrissey of Union Station Homeless Services and Teresa Eilers, a coordinator with the Everyone In campaign in the San Gabriel Valley.

The two guests discuss the state of the homeless crisis in the San Gabriel Valley based on recent surveys – plus initiatives to reduce homelessness. If someone wants to get involved in their community, sign up at Everyone In’s “Get Involved” page and a representative will get in touch with you. If you’re looking for other options, Curbed also has a list of ways to help end homelessness.

Everyone In and Union Station Housing both push the “housing first” philosophy of attacking the homelessness crisis. That is: providing housing options that get and keep people off the street doesn’t just alleviate homelessness, but also help with the problems related to homelessness: addiction, joblessness, and personal and public health.

Eilers explains, “we need more supportive housing, it is the tool that ends homelessness. Everyone agrees that homelessness is a problem, but not everyone agrees on the solutions. Permanent affordable housing has a tremendous success rate. Over 90% of the people that enter permanent supportive housing stay housed.”

Before “housing first” gained widespread support in America, most government programs supported emergency shelters and finding people jobs. If people were capable of keeping that job and paying the going rate for housing, then they would leave the shelter. Hopefully, everything would work out. And sometimes it did.

“It took us fifty years to realize that the solution to homelessness was to give people a home,” Morrissey half-jokes. “Previous to that, we have been mired in this emergency shelter system.“

“For the few for whom that model worked, and who could jump through those hoops, they found housing. For many others with more complex needs and challenges, they languished in homelessness for decades,” Morrissey continues.

One of the ways that Everyone In trains advocates is by conducting bus tours of already-built permanently subsidized housing. It was on an early September bus tour in Pasadena and Eagle Rock that I met Morrisey and Eilers who were leading the tour. The tour included two dozen advocates already well versed in the issue, the mayor and a staff person from Arcadia, and others who were looking to learn more, but may not have been sympathetic to the cause of needing to support more housing as part of a larger solution.

Morrissey weaves his personal story into his advocacy. He is in his second job with Union Station where he previously helped manage their support services. However, he joined their staff after being one of their clients seventeen years ago.

Morrissey (left) poses with advocates at the end of the Everyone In bus tour in September. Photo : Damien Newton
Morrissey (left) poses with advocates at the end of the Everyone In bus tour in September. Photo : Damien Newton

He tells the story of being connected to services by a Union Station outreach team a few weeks before Christmas in 2002. An outreach team staffer recognized his substance abuse and got him into a detox and then rehab program. From there, he entered the services system as a client…the same system he would help manage for his job later in a few years. Today, he is one of the most effective advocates for homeless housing, a walking success story of what can happen when people are given a chance and take advantage.

He introduced his story early in the tour, during the first part of the first stop. By stating his history upfront, and acknowledging that encounters with people experiencing homelessness can be scary, he steered the conversation away from dehumanizing the homeless and towards how to create more success stories.

Success stories such as the affable and passionate man who was leading the tour and pleading with everyone to join him in creating more opportunities for more people.

“There’s good and decent people that are homeless. When you look at a homeless person, the presentation can be scary. Someone who might not have slept, might not have bathed, might not have eaten; we tend to “other” these people instead of wrapping around them. We shun them. We need to recognize these are our brothers and sisters. These are human beings,” Morrissey said.

And like any good tag-team, Morrissey’s partner brought a different strength to the tour. Eilers comes from a markedly different background. She is college educated with a previous job at the locally powerful Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), which largely dictates housing (and electoral) policy in the Westside city. She also previously worked to connect homeless South L.A. residents and foster youth to Staples Center jobs, and on the Measure M campaign.

Lacking Morrissey’s backstory, Eilers plays the organizer bringing as many people to city council hearings, such as the one in Alhambra in September, and formal Everyone In events such as the bus tour, trainings, and Stories from the Frontline.

“Everyday is different, which is difficult but also a challenge,” says Eilers of her job. “My job is basically to make connections and build coalitions to bring about systemic changes.”

Eilers contends that many people recognize that increased housing and shelter options must be part of the solution, but political leaders are unwilling to make decisions to build that would be unpopular with housed, likely voting, residents. This leads to a “carrot and stick” approach to meetings and lobbying of city councils.

Eilers, on-stage, takes questions before the "Supportive Housing Bus Tour" in September. Photo: Damien Newton
Eilers, on-stage, takes questions before the “Supportive Housing Bus Tour” in September. Photo: Damien Newton

“We have been reaching out to elected officials and letting them know we’re there to help. That’s the carrot,” she explains. “Gavin Newsom has made it known he’ll come after you. He’ll sue your city – if they aren’t attempting to reach housing targets.”

That’s the stick.

Eilers also expresses frustration that some communities are welcoming to homeless housing for certain types of people experiencing homelessness (veterans, families with children), but not others. There are not homeless people that are more deserving of help than others.

“We need to stop homelessness in all demographics.” she concludes.

For more on and from Eilers and Morrissey, take the time to listen to SGV Connect Episode 50:

SGV Connect is supported by Foothill Transit, offering car-free travel throughout the San Gabriel Valley with connections to the new Gold Line Stations across the Foothills and Commuter Express lines traveling into the heart of downtown L.A. To plan your trip, visit Foothill Transit. “Foothill Transit. Going Good Places.”

Catch past episodes of SGV Connect and #DamienTalks on LibSyn, iTunesGoogle Play, or Overcast.

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