Shared Housing Works, But the City Doesn’t Use It to House the Homeless

This man is living in the Westchester Senior Center Parking lot, across from the Library and CD11’s Westchester headquarters. This is not a dignified way to live.

With more than 60,000 homeless people living on the streets and parks of Los Angeles – and residents told that nothing can be done because there’s not enough housing—one option is overlooked: shared housing.

The effectiveness of efficiency of this approach was explained at the October 5 Palisades Optimist Club Zoom meeting.

Brian Ulf of SHARE! and Heidi Roberts of Haaven Shared Housing noted that shared housing costs are far lower than building individual apartments at $700,000 each. Unfortunately, developers, contractors and those in the homeless industrial complex don’t make money with that model.

Why doesn’t LAHSA (L.A. Homeless Services Authority) get behind shared housing? CTN contacted that organization with the question, but no one has returned the call.

Roberts, a Venice resident who founded Haaven with her husband in 2019, said that LAHSA has told her that it is undignified for people to share housing and that because her nonprofit does not allow alcohol and drugs on the premises, she is “impeding people’s civil rights.”

Shared housing means, for example, that eight people might share a house and in some cases, they share a room. Roberts asks, “Is it more undignified to live on the street or share a room?”

Brian Ulf

Ulf said that he is a recovering alcoholic (since 2001), and that his career was in commercial real estate before he turned his attention to housing the homeless. He is president and CEO of StrongHouse Realty Advisors, managing partner of StrongHouse Development Group and president and board chair of SHARE! (the Self-Help and Recovery Exchange).

He told the Optimists that putting a homeless person in a room by themselves in isolation may not be the best way to help people.

“If they have a roommate and the roommate is going to an AA meeting, they might go along,” Ulf said, noting that a young social worker fresh out of college might not have the experience to appreciate the importance of peer advocacy.

Peer advocacy means that someone who has gone through a similar experience, such as homelessness, will understand the situation better and have a unique ability to engage with those who are socially excluded.

On the SHARE! website, reasons and research are listed about why peer outreach is essential. For example, “peers convey a sense of understanding and make a bridge between street life and the world of ‘professionals’ whom homeless individuals don’t initially trust.”

Ulf also said that self-help support groups are essential and are more likely to be used in shared housing, where a community is developed.

Roberts worked for a year as a PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) volunteer after a successful career in advertising. Living in Venice, she and her husband, John Betz, saw increasing problems with the homeless.

Convinced a shared housing model would work, the couple purchased three homes and turned them into housing for the homeless. They have housed more than 170 people since 2018.

They have three rules: 1) No violence in words or actions, 2) No drugs or alcohol—“we don’t ask people to be sober, but we ask them not to use them in the house,” and 3) Be nice.

There is a community kitchen and living room. “Each house develops its own rules,” Roberts said, noting that it could be easy for people who have a single room to isolate, but “we want to encourage people to go downstairs.”

Each person pays $500 in rent, which includes, not just a room but a place that is fully furnished and has cleaning supplies, Wi-Fi and television. Roberts and Betz have also created outside spaces for vegetable and flower gardens.

Heidi Roberts

“Some residents have never seen anything grow and it’s a sense of pride when they had tomatoes,” Roberts said. And then they offer vegetables to their neighbors, which also helps grow a sense of community.

A peer advocate goes to each house and “her primary responsibility is to steer the clients. She helps them work through issues,” Roberts said.

Of the 60,000 homeless living on the street in Los Angeles, Roberts said, “They all have one thing in common: they lack the support they need to address homelessness.”

Remarkably, Haaven has never received any kind of public funding. Initially Roberts felt that if she could show officials the model would work, and it does, they would support shared housing.

“I’ve given up on the government,” she told the Optimists, but acknowledged that if the government could allocate taxpayer money for peer advocates, shared housing would break even.

Voters have approved measures to get the homeless housing, but nothing appears to be getting better.

“I have no hope they’ll adopt this model,” Roberts said. “No one makes any money on this. It is not a profitable solution.”

Ulf and Roberts said “helping” the homeless has become a money-making enterprise in Los Angeles.

“The money question is absolutely tragic,” Ulf said. “All contracts are made on a pay-to-play basis.”

Both believe that if taxpayers are to know where their taxes designated for the homeless are going, it will have to be done through forensic accounting.

“It’s not just a housing issue,” Ulf said about the homeless. “They have to have support.”

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