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Everyone In: Cracking the Homeless Crisis, One Story at a Time

Featured in the photo from left to right: Speakers Millie Brown, Will Semonsen, Angela M. Sanchez, Elise Buik, CEO and president of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Loren Elan, Everyone In Organizer Jordan Wynn, Rhiannon Diaz, Marilyn Wells, founder of Stories From The Frontline, and James Suazo Associate Director, Long Beach Forward from the Long Beach event on February 26, 2019. (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Los Angeles' EVERYONE IN campaign.)

In 2005, after a lifetime of intermittent homelessness, drugs and abuse, Dorothy Edwards thought she'd finally pulled her life together: She'd landed a waitress job and an apartment of her own. But her relationship was fraught with violence, and she came to work with black eyes. She was asked to leave the job, and when she couldn't pay her rent, she got evicted.

"I was doing so well. And then everything fell apart," she said. She was out on the street with no place to go. "The hours turned into days, the days turned into weeks, and then months and years." Her biggest fear was that she was going to die like a piece of garbage, out behind a Dumpster, and her sister would have to come identify her body.

In 2011, the Pasadena Police Department's Homeless Outreach Psychiatric Evaluation program, directed by Officer Bill Shipman, found Edwards and her dog sleeping in the doorway of a Goodwill. He identified her as a person most likely to die on the streets. Eventually, Housing Works and the City Of Pasadena helped her secure a housing voucher for a one-bedroom bungalow.

But having a new home just meant that Edwards brought her drugs there. "I still had my horrible addiction," she said. Her landlord, concerned about the company she kept, gave her an eviction notice.

Enter Shawn Morrissey, an outreach worker for the homeless who has since become director of advocacy and community engagement for Pasadena's Union Station Homeless Services. He talked the landlord into giving Edwards another chance. And he pointed out to Edwards that she could make better decisions for herself.

"And that's all he had to say. After that, that was so easy to quit," Edwards said. She's been sober six and a half years, and today works at a supportive services 54-unit apartment building in Eagle Rock.

Edwards and many other formerly homeless tell their stories through a community organization called Stories From the Frontline, co-hosted by United Way of Greater Los Angeles' campaign called Everyone In. The idea is to put a face on homelessness through compelling storytelling, ala NPR's The Moth or This American Life. The partnership, Everyone In: Stories From The Frontline has produced six events over the past year in Venice, Boyle Heights, Long Beach, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Hollywood. Formerly homeless people speak in front of various community groups, legislators and even, most recently, for the Writers' Guild Association in hopes that someone will be inspired to bring the stories to a screen. This week's event in Hollywood featured actor emcees Emma Kenney and Ethan Cutkosky from the TV show Shameless.

The effort began when Marilyn Wells, a passionate philanthropist and homeless advocate, saw a woman named Emily recount her experience about her descent to homelessness. Emily had had a job, a husband and two boys, and lived a normal upper-middle class suburban life. When one son was tragically killed in an accident, Emily succumbed to alcoholism and battled undiagnosed bipolar disorder. She ended up losing everything, and found herself out on the streets. Her turning point came when she thought seriously of ending it all, and finally sought—and got—the help she needed. "I listened to her story. And I thought, 'this is not the person that one think we think of a homeless person. She's not the disheveled person on the corner. This woman could be sitting at the table with us, she could be living in my neighborhood," Wells said. "When I heard Emily's story, I wanted to share it with my community because most people have their own image of who people living in the street are, and they are usually incorrect stereotypes."

When Wells saw how powerful the act of telling a personal story was, she wanted to expand it. She started Stories From the Frontline and funded it with her husband via their John and Marilyn Wells Family Foundation. "Stories from the Frontline and Everyone In seek to educate and galvanize the communities of Los Angeles to support housing. We both focus on community outreach," Wells said. The storytelling evening events draw about 250-300 audience members.

Stories From The Frontline finds many of its speakers through the Corporation for Supportive Housing's "Speak Up" advocates, who have gone through a 10-month training program with professional actors and directors as coaches. "It allows those of us with lived experience to be a part of the solution," Edwards said. She's a graduate of the inaugural class five years ago, which is being expanded to more cities. Everyone In also works with local service provider organizations to identify individuals who recently transitioned from living on the streets into supportive or affordable housing to support them in sharing their stories at the events.

Dorothy Edwards, speaker at the Pasadena event. She shares her story as part of the CSH Speak Up program in an effort to help people better understand the power of supportive housing. (Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Los Angeles' EVERYONE IN campaign.)

Shifting the Strategy

Edwards says homelessness can be solved, but it's going to come from a lot of different directions, because there are so many different reasons why people become homeless. Combatting NIMBYism is on top of the list—just not wanting services in your neighborhood isn't a good enough reason to oppose housing. "People are dying on the streets, and it's not okay. Some of those people are my friends, and it hits me in a really deep, sensitive personal spot in my heart," Edwards says.

"In the old days, we would make people jump through a lot of hoops to get housing," says Elise Buik, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. But then it became clear that services and housing lead to stability, steady employment, better health and addressing addiction issues. "Two things are important. One is that 85% of people stay in housing. And it's also 40% cheaper. So in that model, when you look at our recent homeless count at 59,000, 75% of those individuals experiencing homelessness are experiencing it for economic reasons."

It's no wonder—Southern California is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, and rents have skyrocketed by 32%, helping to create the crisis we have now. The solution lies in what Buik calls "the three Ps": protection for renters, preservation of buildings, and production of low-income units.

Buik also championed two successful Los Angeles County bond measures that would help: Proposition HHH, which provides $1.2 billion for permanent supportive housing; and Measure H, which provides $350 million per year for 10 years for homeless supportive services paid through sales tax. Sounds amazing, right?

The problem is that of the people who voted for the measures and who truly want to see a solution to homelessness, a very vocal minority will show up to zoning meetings to oppose any kind of low-income or bridge housing. When supporters show up en masse, lawmakers can understand a more accurate picture of the homeless services the community truly wants. Everyone In helps to organize that effort.

Buik thinks that although local, counties and state governments all need to tackle the issue, the definitive solution may have to be forged in Sacramento through policies that reach every jurisdiction. At last count, more than 600,000 LA County residents are one missed paycheck or major financial emergency away from being homeless.

"I don't think any of us want Los Angeles to be like San Francisco, where we only have housing for the wealthy. And that creates all kinds of issues for people on fixed incomes, your seniors, your college graduates, your low-wage workers, you're working poor," Buik says. "We need to make sure we have housing that is aligned with jobs, that allows people of all income levels to live in communities."

It Starts With You

If you're feeling hopeless and overwhelmed but want to help, know that even the tiniest action can be useful. Buik suggests taking some time to learn about the issues, meet people experiencing homelessness in your neighborhood and sign up for an Everyone In training to become an advocate for affordable and supportive housing in your community. You can also get involved in your neighborhood council to help shape policy. "I think little steps and big steps make a huge difference," Buik says.