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Housing and Homelessness

The Role Of Charity And Corporate Responsibility When Talking About Homelessness

An adult, with small children clinging to her, lifts a big dark mass on her shoulders as she tries to walk forward in a graphic illustration.
“The social argument addressing harmful social impacts is that there is an unwritten, but very real social contract between business and society,” said John Steiner, an expert on corporate social responsibility.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)
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At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns in March 2020, Airbnb’s charitable arm reached out to L.A. County's Chief Executive Office with a proposal: let us help first responders by providing transitional housing.

The company eventually announced a commitment of $1.5 million to support 1,000 frontline workers in L.A. County in collaboration with L.A. County Health Services, the Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers West. The program was part of Airbnb’s global initiative to help connect 100,000 first responders with places to stay while they worked on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Airbnb made it very easy, according to Coral Itzcalli, spokesperson for L.A. Health Services, so officials gladly accepted the offer.

“Health Services was just responsible for promoting the resources available to the staff,” Itzcalli said. “We created an online form for staff to complete. Then that information was sent to Airbnb, who took it and fulfilled the request.”

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Itzcalli said first responders were grateful for the program because being on the frontlines of the pandemic was “emotionally, mentally, and physically” draining, and it was nice to have a space where they could “rest and decompress.”

On any given night, there are roughly 66,000 people across L.A. and 161,000 in California experiencing homelessness. Studies show that unhoused people face similar traumas and stressors that deprive them of mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, renewing interest in the role of companies' corporate social responsibility and reimagining the role of charity.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporations have a moral duty to prevent or correct adverse impacts on society, said John Steiner, an expert on corporate social responsibility and retired California State University, Los Angeles professor.

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“The social argument addressing harmful social impacts is that there is an unwritten, but very real social contract between business and society,” Steiner said. “Society gives corporations the license to operate and in return the corporation is obligated to act for the overall good of society.”

It's looking around at the problems that exist in the community and then looking inward as the company to say, what are our core competencies, what can we help solve.
— Kellie McElhaney, expert on corporate social responsibility

Steiner said some companies do responsible things just because they can do something no one else can do. He pointed to Merck, the pharmaceutical company, developing a drug to fight river blindness in equatorial regions and giving it away for free to countries needing it.

Steiner noted that IBM’s development of software that helps track missing persons or relief supplies after a disaster had a “profound” and “positive” impact.

“Both these companies could be called corporate superheroes, because they, and only they, had just the right capacities to do something new to help society,” he said.

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Airbnb doesn’t see itself as a contributor to the homelessness crisis. The Airbnb spokesperson said it supported two local Los Angeles measures — H and HHH — to generate housing and homeless services funding, adding that 42% of its host community said in a survey that money they earned from home sharing prevented them from falling into homelessness.

“Airbnb has long supported the development of more affordable housing across California while serving as a tool for economic empowerment that helps families across Los Angeles participate in the city’s tourism economy and earn meaningful income to pay their bills,” the spokesperson said. “As our data confirms, and a number of experts have concluded, short-term rentals are not a meaningful driver of the housing affordability crisis, including in Los Angeles.”

Airbnb has reinvented itself as the world’s crisis housing provider through its nonprofit organization, Airbnb.org, by providing “critical infrastructure in times of disaster.” There have been calls to treat California’s homelessness crisis like a natural disaster from some elected leaders and mayoral candidates in Los Angeles. Federal intervention would eliminate much of the red tape that serves as a barrier to building housing and get money directly into unhoused people’s hands. But so far, that hasn’t happened.

a bucket covered with a black trash bag and a toilet seat sits at the front entrance to an unhoused man's tent in downtown Los Angeles.
A bucket for defecating sits outside an unhoused man's tent in downtown Los Angeles.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)

It doesn’t matter if Airbnb created the problem or not, said Kellie McElhaney, a professor at UC Berkeley and expert in corporate social responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion. She said corporations should be looking in their own backyard to address homelessness.

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“It's looking around at the problems that exist in the community and then looking inward as the company to say, what are our core competencies, what can we help solve?” McElhaney said. “So it's a square-on fit. Airbnb houses people, period.”

She said it’s easy for corporations to jump in and support first responders or people fleeing violence because they’re often seen as more palatable individuals to house versus an unhoused person.

Not Enough Resources

L.A. County’s Department of Health Services would love to be able to provide temporary homes for those living on the streets because many are people it serves everyday, according to Itzcalli. There just aren’t enough resources.

When asked about expanding the program with Airbnb, she said the agency hasn’t explored a further partnership, and it only worked because the company reached out first.

“We're a public agency, we're stretched in resources,” Itzcalli said. “Our resources go to our street medical clinics that go from homeless encampment to homeless encampment, offering vaccines or taking care of people, lesions, etc., that's where we're putting our resources.”

Doug, an unhoused man is seated in a chair while Dr. Brett Feldman treats a wound on Doug's left arm. Joseph Becerra, a community health worker and Senator Sydney Kamlager look on.
In Aug. 2021, Brett Feldman, director of street medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, treated the arm of Doug, an unhoused man, while Joseph Becerra, a community health worker, and State Sen. Sydney Kamlager watched.
(Ethan Ward
/
LAist)

Although funds from Airbnb’s program ran out in June 2021, first responders still received support from USC’s hotel, which allowed first responders to temporarily stay. There was also funding from an April 2020 state program announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom that provided access to rooms at no or low cost. That program ended in Oct. 2021.

Newsom, who has invested billions into efforts to fight homelessness, announced in May an additional $150 million for jurisdictions to bolster Project Homekey sites, which are permanent supportive housing units for people experiencing homelessness.

In L.A., officials have made significant investments in housing and shelter options. The city agreed to provide enough shelter beds for 60% of unhoused people in each district as part of a settlement agreement with a group of people who sued over the conditions on Skid Row.

But there are concerns that unhoused people won’t accept temporary offers of shelter that don’t come with privacy. Fewer than one-third who responded to a recent RAND Corp. survey said they would move into a congregate shelter.

Investment Opportunity

McElhaney, the expert in corporate social responsibility at UC Berkeley, said the government won’t be the solution to fixing the homelessness crisis because so much of the world’s resources are in the private sector.

“I'm a huge fan of London Breed, our San Francisco mayor, and she has been wonderful at developing public-private partnerships, but she doesn't have resources,” McElhaney said.

Daniel Heimpel, executive editor of The Giving List, wrote about how the role of charity needs to expand. He argued that foundations should start viewing the homelessness crisis as an investment opportunity.

“You have in the county of Los Angeles, about $100 billion sitting in charitable foundation endowments,” Heimpel said. “In Los Angeles County, there are 66,436 unhoused people living on the streets, in vehicles, or in makeshift dwellings. It would cost $200,000 a door, or $13.3 billion, to give them all safe housing."

The downtown LA skyline at dusk from San Pedro St. on Skid Row.
The downtown L.A. skyline at dusk as seen from Skid Row.
(Ethan Ward/LAist)

Heimpel said if endowments invested only 10% of their money into housing for people experiencing homelessness it could serve as a reliable stream of income and be transformative. Critics of this idea said homelessness is a humanitarian crisis that shouldn’t be used as an opportunity for profit. But Heimpel doesn’t see it that way.

“The real enemy is a financial and real estate system that has made housing impossible for too many, and in order to see real change, the private sector will have to change too,” Heimpel said. “These foundations were created for the public good, but the majority of that wealth is spent on the private markets, sometimes to the complete detriment of the public good. If the foundations are going to make these investments anyway, why not make them make investments that do good?” 

Both McElhaney and Heimpel said racial equity should also be considered, since Black people disproportionately represent the unhoused population in Los Angeles.

“Government has to change,” Heimpel said. “And the private sector has to change, too. Everybody's got to change.”

What questions do you have about homelessness?
Ethan Ward for a time lived in his car while attending community college. That experience informs his reporting on one of the most pressing issues in Southern California.