Vikki Vickers, 50, was one of the tens of thousands of homeless people living on the streets of Santa Monica for four-and-a-half years.
It's been about three years now since Vickers moved into the Downtown Women's Center in Downtown Los Angeles, but she is still aware of the social stigma that surrounds the homeless community. Still, she says the public needs to be compassionate.
Vickers: People need to dig deep into the human emotion of this. Maybe someone is so mentally ill that they cannot be helped and cannot get into the job market, and maybe there’s someone who is a drug addict who will never get a job. But do these people deserve to die on a sidewalk? That is the deep core emotion that needs to be thought of. Yes, maybe they’re scary and maybe they shouldn’t be in someone else’s backyard, but that doesn’t make them an animal that needs to be abandoned and left to die either.
Even still, the homeless are not always receptive to compassion or to a helping hand.
Patt Morrison: Are there people who are going to be shelter-resistant and say, "Nope. You can build me the nicest apartment, but I ain’t going there"?
Vickers: Absolutely, I was one of those people. For four-and-a-half years, people approached me every once in a while and said, “Please come inside,” and told me all the wonderful things they could do for me. But I was so afraid and so into my psychosis that I could not comprehend that.
It took gentle persistence by a man who came by and dropped off food from the pantry every other week…just a gentle kind approach. And finally, one day I was so sick, I took finally took his advice and went to Ocean Park Community Center and from there, they just saved my life.
But yeah, that does happen, but does that mean it’s still OK to leave them out there? I think we should be more mobile. We should have RVs where we can go to people, build relationships, give the homeless the supplies they need, and treat them as what they are: people
Guest host Patt Morrison turned to L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl for a response.
Morrison: As you’re listening to Vicki Vickers, someone who’s been there, who’s lived it, who was homeless, who is schizophrenic, you realize you really can’t have a one-size-fits-all program. So how much energy do you devote to the homeless population that would be happy to get in shelters. That may not have drug or alcohol problems? That you can deal with their issues more quickly than people who are these long term, intractable homeless?
Kuehl: Well the county is not treating it as a choice. The county is addressing each of these populations. We’re doing homeless outreach to try to get people to know that there are safe ways to come in. We’re looking to get landlords to take their vouchers, we’re supporting them with services, we’re putting a billion dollars a year into services for homeless people that’s not just for building facilities, and putting another $150 million for building, plus anything we can get if the state lets us get something on the budget.
It’s not easy to house a person in a county with 2 percent vacancy and where landlords prefer people who have not been homeless because they think of them as less worthy tenants. But let me tell the landlords, when they come with services and their own advocates, they’re much better tenants. So, take our vouchers and let them in and that’ll help people get back on their feet.
Callers like Steve wanted to know why they should be responsible for paying for homeless services.
Steve from Brea: Obviously I don’t want my tax dollars paying for this type of thing, even though I know it already is. Why can’t the families be located for some of these homeless. I know not all of them have families, but I honestly think the families should be on the hook for providing care, not us as taxpayers. And by the way, why do homeless people choose where they get to live? If I’m paying for it, I want to choose where they live. There’s plenty of affordable housing in other cities, they don’t have to live in L.A. — nor should they be allowed to. There are plenty of other affordable cities that aren’t too far away. I’m not talking Arizona or Napa Valley, but if my tax dollars are paying for the care, they should work harder to find cities that have housing. There are plenty of cities. They can go to Victorville or Palmdale.
Morrison asked Bob Solomon, co-director of Community & Economic Development at the University of California, Irvine, to address this common question.
Solomon: We subsidize developers of housing all the time, we give tax breaks to wealthy developers of housing and there’s no reason we couldn’t give the same breaks to encourage the private market to develop more housing. The notion that a voucher is not enough to provide a unit simply says we have a cookie cutter notion — largely coming out of Washington D.C. — and the voucher amount should be increased.
For example, if you have a voucher that pays $1200 and is not used, and you have a thousand of those, you’re better off having 500 that work and pay $2400. It’s obvious, this is not really higher math.
Rebecca Prine with the nonprofit organization Recycled Resources also wanted to address the question since she's surveyed homeless people since 2009.
Prine: We’ve outreached to about 750 individuals since we’ve been in operation and the majority of people do not have families. Either as a result of a mental illness or addiction, their families have shunned them. They really don’t have another support system, other than the people who are outreaching to them. Your tax dollars are paying for this regardless, so you’re either going to be spending tax dollars on the emergency services that it takes people to get back on their feet when they’re on the streets, or you can spend significantly less in housing somebody.
As someone with first-hand experience living on the streets, Vickers shared why an internal support system didn't work for her.
Vickers: I had a very difficult upbringing and when my symptoms started, I ran away from my family and cut off contact with them and they left it that way; there was never a good relationship in the first place, so I in essence don’t have one.
Does that mean that he should pay for me? Honestly, in my opinion, no. But could he help me? I would hope that he would want to. It’s a human problem, you have to have compassion. You can’t just watch someone die and say, “It’s OK, I’m not going to help,” or the problem is never going to be solved and there are going to be thousands of people who die on the sidewalk.
What are your biggest concerns surrounding homelessness?
This story has been updated and the interview edited for clarity. Listen to the full discussion by clicking the playhead above.
Rebecca Prine, Founder and volunteer director, Recycled Resources for Homeless
Vicki Vickers, Formerly homeless and a current advocate for the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s “SpeakUp!” program