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Long Beach Homeless Column: We can do more to end crisis — but need everyone’s help

Published: 7/25/2022

In Kelly Colopy's second column on the homelessness crisis, our Long Beach Health Department & Human Services Director talk about underlying issues causing homelessness and possible solutions. 

Take a read below. This column first appeared
 in the Press-Telegram

Long Beach homeless column: We can do more to end crisis — but need everyone’s help

In her second monthly column on the crisis, Long Beach health Director Kelly Colopy discusses the causes of homelessness and various solutions.

By Kelly Colopy,  
Contributing writer

Earlier this month, the city released its report on homelessness, which found 3,296 people living without permanent shelter in Long Beach.

Behind each number is a real person with real feelings and, often, overwhelming challenges and trauma.

Most people experiencing homelessness in our city come from Long Beach and the surrounding areas. They are our neighbors and we must continue to do more as a city government and as a community to create a path for each person and each family to get the support they need to thrive.

This year, we have seen a significant increase in homelessness, which is not good – not for our city and certainly not for the people who are experiencing it.

I imagine this increase is frustrating to many of you. I’m frustrated, too.

So let’s talk frankly about current causes of homelessness in the city, the challenges we face in resolving these issues and the things we are doing to help.

First – and I doubt this comes as a surprise to anyone – nearly half the people who are homeless in Long Beach got there because of unemployment or other financial reasons. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people living in Long Beach were laid off from their jobs, and if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it doesn’t take long for the bills to pile up and to lose your footing. Add to that housing costs, which continue skyrocketing – it now costs nearly $1,500 to rent a studio apartment in Long Beach – and suddenly people find themselves choosing between basic needs, such as food, and a roof over their heads.

An apartment might give way to couch surfing, which might give way to living in one’s vehicle or on the street.

Overwhelmingly, people experiencing homelessness want steady housing. When you see someone experiencing homelessness, you are likely encountering them in the most challenging and vulnerable time of their life.

And many have experienced great trauma, violence, behavioral health issues and/or physical disabilities, which compound both their risk of homelessness and pose challenges in seeking help.

Nearly a quarter of the people we spoke with during our Homeless Point in Time Count, which took place in February, said they were former foster children and nearly a third experienced violence at some point in their lives. Many suffered this abuse as children.

Research shows us that a person who experiences violence, neglect and other adverse events as a child is 30 times (that’s 3,000%) more likely to become homeless than a person who does not.

The health department has many important programs focusing on young families and children, including family preservation; fatherhood programming; Women, Infant and Children programs, otherwise known as WIC; and Black infant health.

The scope of need, however, is beyond these services.

It is essential that our governmental partners, community organizations and community members work together to support families and reduce trauma to reduce future homelessness.

We also know that many people experiencing homelessness have mental health concerns or are misusing drugs or alcohol.

Right now, we have more than 1,200 residents experiencing homelessness who also have severe mental illness, and more than 950 people reported a substance use disorder.

We can’t meet the need with existing mental health and substance use prevention and treatment systems.

Funding for these services for people who have low incomes comes through federal, state and county funding, and these services are planned and provided for through the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Prevention and Control. Adding more intensive, residential services to Long Beach needs to happen, but it takes time, community will, and county and state funding commitments.

But we are not just waiting for resources to fall into our lap.

We are also partnering with the county and have convened a Mental Health Advisory Group, made up of more than 30 partner organizations, to determine how to increase and streamline access to services. We also have invested in mental health clinicians as part of our REACH team and are seeking funding for mobile mental health and substance use services.

We need investments in the people who need our help now – to reduce the likelihood of homelessness in the future.

That means putting time, effort and funding into strengthening families; providing support to former foster youth and formerly incarcerated people; and investing in behavioral health programs.

And we are continuing to aggressively pursue funding and develop programs to build resilience in our community.

We have significantly expanded our Homeless Services Bureau outreach and service staff and have expanded interim housing by 470 beds to help meet the need.

More can be done, but we cannot do this alone. We need your help, too.

If you are a property owner, please consider renting your units to people with housing vouchers. We have more than 400 people experiencing homelessness with vouchers in hand – all they need is a chance.

These housing vouchers come with incentives for landlords and supportive services for the tenant to help ensure the transition to permanent housing is successful and permanent.

If the people holding vouchers were all matched with apartments, overall homelessness would decrease by 15%. That’s a big impact and you can be part of the solution.

If you are a motel owner, consider taking motel vouchers to allow a person to have temporary housing while we find more long-term solutions. We know that sometimes the only thing keeping a person experiencing homelessness from accepting services is the safety and security of a private room.

Employers can also be an important part of the solution by giving jobs to people experiencing homelessness and paying livable wages.

But everyone reading this can make a difference, too.

While physical donations and financial gifts to the Mayor’s Fund to End Homelessness or volunteering are welcome and very helpful, you can also make a big impact by simply considering what your neighbors who are experiencing homelessness are going through. And when you are talking with your family, friends and neighbors about this crisis, spread that empathy.

Because a little understanding can go a long way in building a stronger, more supportive community.

Kelly Colopy is the director of the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.

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