First Republic has proudly served nonprofits for more than 20 years, and today over a third of our business loans have supported the expansion and growth of nonprofit organizations. It is our privilege to highlight The People Concern and their mission of providing care to the most vulnerable members of our community.
Based in Santa Monica, The People Concern strives daily to ensure Los Angeles’ most vulnerable — including a homeless population of more than 58,000 — are housed, healthy and safe.
We recently caught up with Executive Director John Maceri to discuss the housing crisis in Southern California and his nonprofit’s holistic approach to serving clients and bringing some much-needed innovation to the fight against homelessness in a city with ever-rising housing prices and less than 1% rental vacancies.
The People Concern merged two long-standing L.A. nonprofits — OPCC and Lamp Community. What was the driving force behind combining the two organizations?
We’ve been in a crisis of homelessness for a long time now. Anyone who lives in L.A. County knows, it’s no longer confined to Skid Row — it’s a growing and pervasive issue across the county. We wanted to take what each organization was doing individually to address homelessness in different parts of the county and kick the work into high gear. In a lot of ways, our services complemented each other. We saw a significant opportunity to do more and make a stronger impact collectively.
The recent wildfires in Southern California — one of which was started by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment — brought increased attention to L.A.’s homeless population. In a direct and tragic way, the fires seem to illustrate that homelessness is an issue affecting all of us. What are some of the safety issues regarding homeless encampments?
I think it underscores the fact that living outdoors is not only unhealthy but also a public safety issue. In Southern California we have drought conditions and it doesn’t take much for a small campfire to get out of control. In this area, there are lots of canyons and wilderness areas where it’s easy for people to get off the grid and hide. That’s why we have our multidisciplinary street outreach teams going into encampments. Our teams include primary care, substance abuse and mental health professionals as well as people who have experienced homelessness. They really get to know clients in the camps and outlying areas, and then help them figure out the best strategy.
How does the holistic approach of The People Concern benefit clients?
We offer comprehensive, wraparound services for our homeless clients that address housing as well as mental health, primary care, substance abuse, domestic violence and wellness issues. That’s not to say that every person who is homeless has all these issues, but often they face multiple challenges. For example, it’s impossible to address someone’s homelessness if the root cause is mental illness, and you’re looking at them in a one-dimensional way; it’s more complex than that. When we address the whole person — their mind, body and spirit — we end up with more success all around. Our housing retention rate — that is, people who will never be homeless again — is 95%.
You note that L.A. County’s homeless population is growing. It’s now bigger than some small towns. What unique challenges does the county face in combating that problem?
First, we have a huge geographic land mass. At 4,700 square miles, L.A. County is larger than some states. We also have a huge unsheltered population, with about 75% of the homeless here living outside. The third component is our real estate market. It’s exceptionally expensive to buy a home and rental vacancy rates are very low. So our clients on low or fixed incomes are competing in a market that’s already tight and expensive. We haven’t kept pace with the demand for new housing at all levels, but it’s especially impacting the working poor. We’ve created a perfect storm for a housing crunch.
Are there any innovative solutions The People Concern is pursuing to alleviate that housing crunch?
We know that when it comes to affordable housing construction, time is long and the cost per unit is high. So we’ve been working with developers on a couple of projects that address those issues. For example, we have the ports of L.A. and Long Beach nearby and there is a surplus of shipping containers that may work as inexpensive alternative housing. There are also some exciting projects around reusing existing facilities such as vacant assisted living centers for housing. And we’re supporting legislation that would streamline the permitting process for more traditional housing. There isn’t just one way to build and scale housing. When you’re in a crisis you need to be creative.
What are some of the myths that you encounter regarding homelessness?
The biggest one is that homeless people want to be homeless — that they’re lazy or shiftless and they don’t want help or housing. I have yet to meet the homeless person who says, “I had this great life and woke up and decided to throw it all away.” I have heard lots of stories about people who had a great life and then bad things happened to them. It’s cumulative trauma — they were tired of being in a domestic violence situation. Or became an alcoholic and then lost their job and housing. Or they had an undiagnosed mental illness. People don’t make a conscious choice to live on the streets, but they do adapt to it and then become distrustful of people and governments trying to help them.
Tell me about a few of The People Concern’s recent successes?
We have been part of a care coordination program in the hospitals — in which once people are medically stabilized they’re connected to housing and ongoing services. The homeless are high utilizers of emergency rooms. And many homeless people visit emergency rooms for shelter or minor medical problems. By putting a care coordinator who could help them with social services right in the ER, we helped drop the cost of individual ER visits from $5,000 per person to $800 and the number of visits per person dropped from six to two. That’s a program that’s now expanding into more hospitals. I’m also proud that we continue to work on the front lines and provide services to our most vulnerable neighbors. We’re innovative. We’ve evolved over the decades and many of the models we’ve developed have become best practices and standards of care. We’re always trying to be better and learn from the work we do.
If people are moved by your message and work, how can they help?
The issues we’re working on may not touch every family, but these are human issues that impact every community — they’re not unique to Los Angeles. Regardless of where people live, I’d encourage them to think about what they can do to help alleviate human suffering. That may mean financial support, volunteering, educating themselves about issues, supporting affordability housing or even teaching their children about empathy. It all makes a difference.
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