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NAJEE’S NOTES: Fighting the fight against homelessness

Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson has emerged as one of our city’s champions in trying to help the issue of homelessness in Los Angeles.

California has the largest percentage of the nation’s chronically homeless — 36 percent. In addition, 24 percent of the nation’s homeless veterans live in California. Our state is in a homeless crisis and it faces many hurdles and obstacles in trying to overcome this issue.

But Los Angeles is being hit the hardest with homelessness, particularly among African Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Los Angeles City and County have the highest number of chronically homeless individuals in the nation. In addition, it has the highest rate of unsheltered homeless.

Between 2014 and 2015, Los Angeles experienced a 55 percent increase in chronically homeless individuals — the largest increase in the nation. But is also an issue tainted by race. African Americans are only 12.6 percent of the country’s population and yet account for more than 40 percent of its homeless population. That’s why Harris-Dawson work on this issue has been so important and critical for our community.

Harris-Dawson and the city’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee identified 60 strategies they believe will help alleviate the magnitude of the issue.

In February, Harris-Dawson hosted a “Homelessness in South L.A.” forum to increase community input from service providers, community leaders and clergy on how to address challenges facing the homeless population in South Los Angeles, and published a position paper on Homelessness in South Los Angeles, which is a deep analysis of economic, housing and social policies that have led to the loss of a social safety net and exacerbated homelessness.

The report lays out policy recommendations for the city in order to combat homelessness in South Los Angeles, including employment programs that connect residents with a living wage, increased and improved re-entry services, more housing options for people of all incomes, and supportive services for individuals with mental illness or drug addiction.

The paper pointedly highlighted a sad reality.

“The current homelessness crisis is decades in the making. For nearly 60 years, policies at every level of government have contributed to a disappearing social safety net, the loss of affordable housing, the rise of mass incarceration, the reduction of middle-class jobs, and the destruction of public mental health care.”

The demographic trend in homelessness in Los Angeles is the unfortunate baseline for homelessness in both the state and nation. According to the report, throughout the city and particularly in South Los Angeles and along Skid Row — “black” is the face of homelessness. In Los Angeles, blacks are only nine percent of the city’s population and yet account for 47 percent of the homeless population.

The concentration of homelessness in South Los Angeles is a growing issue that must be brought to public attention. Homelessness is often linked to places like Skid Row and Venice.

However, in South Los Angeles, homelessness continues to grow at rapid rates. Additionally, African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by homelessness across the city. We must create better policies to bring homelessness to an end.

Harris-Dawson has been very vocal on this issue.

“I’ve spent years working in South Los Angeles focusing on joblessness, poverty, and lack of public services,” he said. “I am dedicated to the issues facing working families of color in South L.A., which has made the challenge of addressing homelessness a valuable one.”

The more he engaged with this crisis, he added, “I saw time and again that the face of homelessness was a black one, and saw firsthand that institutionalized racism amplifies the effects of economic inequality.”

The councilman believes it is of vital importance to raise the issue of homelessness in South Los Angeles and the particular need to focus on black homelessness. “The committee,” he said, “wanted to take a comprehensive approach to dealing with homelessness in Los Angeles.”

According to Harris-Dawson, “These wide-ranging approaches provide the city with a foundation to address many of the issues facing homeless individuals. From there, we needed to determine which strategies are short-term and which are long-term that will take time to develop.”

He believes the short-term strategies will provide a bridge while working to create more housing and provide services necessary for long term stability to the homeless in Los Angeles. The councilman also believes the committee’s efforts to end poverty and homelessness in the black communities of Los Angeles can be used as a model/best practice in other communities.

“The unprecedented coordination among the city and county provide us an opportunity to impact homelessness on a scale that Los Angeles has not yet seen,” Harris-Dawson said. “As the city continues to garner the resources needed to impact homelessness, I want to lift up the issue of race and work on solutions to problems that impact black homeless individuals and families.”

He expounded, “For example, the long legacy of discriminatory policing and sentencing has substantially impacted the black community. Many people exiting prison and jail do not have a support system to house them as they re-enter society and try to find a job. Many did not have stable housing before their incarceration, and many will struggle to find employment with their conviction history.”

He concluded, “Those who have paid their debt to society should have an opportunity to create a life without facing high barriers. This is the type of leadership we need in our city. The full position paper can be found on the Harris-Dawson’s website. www.mhdcd8.com.

With homelessness in South Los Angeles, being such a critical issue I wanted to let the community know more about our local champions who have been at the forefront of this pressing issue and the organizations they lead.

Janet Denise Kelly has been a shining star and beacon of hope in our community with more than two decades of accomplishments in the housing and the nonprofit sector. Beginning her career in fair housing, Kelly developed a strong interest in housing issues and parlayed this interest into addressing homelessness, implementing community and economic development initiatives and building affordable housing opportunities for the homeless and low-income people.

Leveraging an impressive portfolio of experience in nonprofit management, operations, mergers, and strategic planning, Kelly has proven to be an adaptive and responsive leader in the community. She is the founder and executive director of Sanctuary of Hope (SOH), a youth development organization that provides housing and education stabilization services for transition age youth, ages 16 -25, who are homeless, in foster care or at-risk in South Los Angeles. South L.A. has the second largest foster care and homeless youth population in the county.

SOH has provided services for over six years and serves over 300 youth annually with an array of services that include housing resources, education support, emergency or safety net services, life coaching and mentorship.

Prior to Sanctuary of Hope, Kelly was chief operating officer a d executive director of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), where she helped hundreds of homeless individuals and families become safely housed and developed the affordable housing arm of the organization, PATH Ventures.

Throughout her career, Kelly has fostered good relations with the community. She has won many community service awards including being selected by former state Sen. Curren Price as a 2010 SHero for California Senate District 26.  She serves on youth service boards, is a member of local, state, and national housing organizations and participates in economic revitalization activities.

Kelly’s greatest passion is South Los Angeles’ youth. She seeks to change the landscape of their future by bringing capital and social resources that will help them become successful and live independently. Kelly earned her bachelor of arts degree from UCLA and holds a master’s in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

As someone who know Kelly personally and has watched her commitment for years, our community should salute her and others like her who are in the trenches fighting the homeless crisis in South Los Angeles.

Next week: A candid conversation with Alisa Orduna, who was appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti as the city’s new homelessness policy director in March. Mayor Garcetti told me exclusively that “Alisa Orduna brings a rich understanding of homelessness services and urban affairs to our policy team. Smart, strategic, and deeply empathetic, Alisa has more than 20 years of experience working in the nonprofit and government sector, and her accomplishments and advocacy for vulnerable communities will bring valuable insight to our fight to end homelessness in Los Angeles. I am proud to have her on my team.”

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