Mykael Williams-Wolf has been homeless twice. He knows a lot about getting by on downtown Los Angeles's Skid Row: How to apply for job when you don't have an address, where to sleep if you want to be left alone, and - perhaps the biggest caper of all - how to get one of the limited number of apartments in the city set aside for the formerly homeless.
It took three years of waiting in lines, figuring out what demographic information to put on an application to maximize the chances of getting a slot, and eavesdropping on conversations between non-profit workers.
"I would tell people in the shelter, out on the streets, 'real talk, you’re competition,'" Williams-Wolf said as he hung out in the community room of LAMP, a homeless service provider that eventually helped him find an apartment.
The system for helping the homeless, many advocates say, is a mess.
"Really, survival of the fittest," said Christine Margiotta, vice president of community impact for the United Way in Los Angeles, who's working on the homeless efforts there.
"If a homeless person was able bodied and willing to stand in line in many cases for a day or two, they were able to literally fight their way to the front of that line and win their way into that housing,” she said.
Until now, while most receive government funding, the nonprofit groups that help the homeless have all been independent entities, with their own application systems and targeted populations. That's changing.
Margiotta is part of an effort working to uniting and coordinating all homeless service providers - from arts programs, to shelters, to housing developments - under one database. The system, called "coordinated entry" calls for each provider to administer the same survey to any homeless person they come across. That individual gets an assigned number, and ideally, they're matched to a provider that specifically targets their needs.
It's meant to end the common experience of having to walk in to 50 different places before finding the right kind of help.
"Coordinated entry is designed to be a no wrong door approach for anyone who’s homeless to access permanent housing," Margiotta said.
Rather than a free-for-all, coordinated entry prioritizes the neediest individuals, who have little ability to fend for themselves.
"Because those who have been on the streets for decades and haven’t been waiting in line or fighting to get into housing, they are the most likely to die on the streets if we don’t intervene," Margiotta said.
Coordinated entry started as a pilot on Skid Row in 2013 and it's catching on. The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to require any homeless housing provider that receives city funds to opt into the system. Los Angeles County has adopted the same policy.
But Ryan Navales of the Midnight Mission doesn't agree with the priority of housing the most desperate.
"Who determines who’s more needy," he asked, "and who can be more successful if given the resources?”
Novales says coordinated entry ignores the population that his group serves the most—people who just need a little boost to get out of homelessness.
“There’s no new government money being created" along with those new priorities, Navales said. So the shift means someone will lose out.
Take the recent investment in ending veterans homelessness since President Obama pledged to house homeless veterans by the end of the year, he said.
"As we direct our attention toward veteran homelessness - which I have a nephew who served in Iraq and I understand that - but you're pulling that money from somewhere else,” Navales said.