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A Vision of Empowerment & an 'Exit from Homelessness' for L.A. Families

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Jill Govan Bauman of Imagine LA

Jill Govan Bauman of Imagine LA
by Sasha Mann, Special to LAist

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times claims that the rate of homelessness in L.A. County has dropped 38% since 2007. Despite the somewhat promising numbers, Los Angeles continues to sustain the largest homeless population in the United States, along with the unfortunate status as “homelessness capital” of the country.

In the face of this dire situation stands a robust little warrior, the two-year-old non-profit organization Imagine LA, whose central idea is to match each of the 8,000 homeless families in Los Angeles with one of its 8,000 faith communities. So far the model really works and has provided many homeless families with the resources and skills necessary to achieve long-term housing, a sustainable income, and lasting independence over a two-year period. President and CEO Jill Govan Bauman tallked to LAist about Imagine LA’s mission, approach and process with regard to the problem of homelessness.

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LAist: When and how did you get started working at Imagine LA?

Jill Govan Bauman: I was originally on the board of directors, and at the time it was pretty brand new. It had been in existence for maybe a year and it was mostly an idea at that point, and a really powerful idea, which is that there are 8,000 homeless families and over 8,000 faith communities of any kind - you know, churches, synagogues, mosques. If we could just match one family with one faith community in such a way that that family really exited homelessness and the kids really thrived, we might really have something… We might have a solution.

How has Imagine LA evolved and grown since it was first started?

When I had just joined the board, we were in the concepts phase and there wasn’t a program yet. The program wasn’t really taking shape. Then I was asked to actually step in as the executive director and now I'm the president. So that, along with a wonderful team and a great board of directors, we’ve just worked our tails off to make that concept of ‘one faith community, one family at a time,’ be a reality. Now we have a two-year program. We get a family into housing and then mentors them and provides them with access to all sorts of great resources around Los Angeles. We get them on their feet and not dead-end jobs, but real career tracks, get the kids really thriving in school, etc.

What exactly is the organization’s relationship with the faith-based communities in LA?

Well, I’ve always felt that the faith community has been under-utilized. Basically what they do is sign up to become what we call a faith partner. And when they say “I will be a faith partner” they’re saying I will do three things.

Firstis to put together a team of volunteers that will be committed to this family for two years. So it’s a big commitment. That team of volunteers are mentors, they’re people who help with transportation, finding an apartment, moving furniture, tutoring the kids, babysitting, helping with health care and nutrition, all sorts of different things.

The second is finding the apartment and helping to furnish it, and that’s through donations - things are not new, they’re used.

The third is the faith community puts together five thousand dollars in what we call sponsorship funds, which is held in an escrow account. The money helps the families get through what we call “barriers to exit.” Things like first and last months’ rent or past utilities bills, where they can’t get an apartment if they don’t have that. They might have the money to pay the rent but they don’t have that. We use that money for job training or community college tuition fees, kids’ uniforms, or kids camp. Those are ways to help the families reach their goals, but that money never goes directly to the family. It goes to an agreed-upon vendor. One of the reasons we do that - and I want to emphasize this - is because we want to actually take money out of the equation. We don’t want the relationship between the faith community volunteers and the family to have anything to do with money. You know, we’re teaching those families to live on a budget. We don’t want them asking for money or getting gift cards or having any pressure one way or the other during the relationship. We do recognize - we’re realistic -that these families do have some significant economic barriers. As little as five thousand dollars - and that’s not very much - can help a great deal. The cost of a family being on the dole, whether it’s foster care, or you know, shelter, if you add it up for a three person family, it can be as much as a million dollars over the course of a lifetime for those kids. Just the adolescence of those kids, for eighteen years, I mean, it’s just astounding.

The faith partner brings those three things: volunteers, furnishings, and money, and Imagine LA then trains them and guides them in working with the family for two years.

How do you help them secure and sustain jobs?

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They usually have some sort of a job. That’s one of the criteria for being one of our families. Most likely it’s a part time job, it’s a dead-end job, but at least it showed that they had the chutzpah to try to get it and got one. So the parents are motivated, but they may not have skills or access to what we call ‘viable career paths.’ We’re not trying to just get them a job. We’re trying to help them get the skills and education for a job that can eventually pay full market rent. Most of these families qualify for rent subsidies of some nature and affordable housing of some nature and we help them get that. But the long-term goal is that they don’t need that by the end of our program. So we don’t pay their rent. We do find them apartments that either through subsidies or affordability, they can maintain.

Do the mentors themselves come from the faith communities or are there also outside volunteers?

The mentors do come from the faith communities, and as the needs of that family and the personalities of each of the members emerge, there are some informal events for people to get to know each other. Happily, the mentor relationships happen organically. I mean, somebody is attracted to this boy and that mom.

What is the training to become a mentor?

What we do is we have a homeless sensitivity and mentorship training program that’s mandatory for everybody working with a family. We also do background checks on everyone working with a family to keep everyone safe. The mentorship training is only two hours long, it is not intensive, but what keeps the process on track is we have weekly conference calls where the head mentor, or the head people from the family’s support team check in and everybody stays on plan step-by-step. The plan is made with the heads of the family support team, the faith community support team, the family and Imagine LA right from the beginning. The family really drives that plan, so we want to be very careful that we are not telling them what to do, but rather encouraging them and giving them the resources to be able to do what they want to do.

What exactly is the mentoring process once families have been matched with a two-year living plan?

There are different levels of mentorship. Each person in the family, as long as the child is four years and older, gets a mentor. And the mentor agrees to meet with them once a week for two years. The most important part of mentorship is consistency. Most of these kids and most of these parents have not had anything about their lives that has been consistent in the recent past, maybe for their whole lives depending on the family.

Then there’s also special tutors - we call them technical mentors - to help a parent learn computer skills, get through a specific class that they’re having trouble with, kids learning to read, helping them with algebra... We find that a lot of these kids need IEPs, which are individualized learning plans, and most of the parents don’t even know how to navigate the school system and get them implemented. In most faith communities, you can find a volunteer that’s done it before and they’re more than willing to help. That is a huge service. Then we stay on board to make sure they get the services that are provided.

First is one-on-one mentors, second are tutors for specific things, and the third are what we call mentor and resource teams. These are smaller commitments for bigger folks, they can be young, old, they can provide play-dates, like babysitting kind of things on a regular basis. They can provide transportation. They can provide meal-planning and cooking lessons and facts about nutrition. They can have a kid go to their drama class and do enrichment and educational opportunities. And that’s where a lot of people get involved in a not so huge way, but still very much connected to the overall solution for the family.

How many families do you work with now and what is your plan for expansion?

We launched our program right around two years ago today and our first family is now graduating. It’s a very powerful story. Two years ago, the Gray family was matched with the Bel Air Presbyterian Church community. Two years ago, the mom was in and out of drug rehab, had horrible chronic health issues and no job skills. Her three kids were in and out of juvie, foster care, or living with a relative in Arizona. They got reunited into housing and each got a mentor and all sorts of resources, and everybody worked really hard. Now the mom is now healthy and she’s employed as a park ranger. Two of her kids are in college - no one’s ever gone to college in her family - and the other is on his way. He’s a junior, he’s taken his PSAT’s. He’s on his road. They enjoy healthy meals together. They laugh. They have fun. They’re a really wonderful family.

So not only did we get the mom, so that she’s self-sufficient in that sort of way, but with the kids we’ve broken the cycle. They’re on their way to being educated, skilled workers and they have a supportive family and they have a supportive community. It’s a very different picture than two years ago.

We currently have twelve families and faith partners in different stages over the last two years. We’ve got eight that are in housing and a couple more that are in the beginning process. We hope to put fifty and maybe as many as seventy-five families on, have them exit homelessness and start thriving next year. We want to do at least a hundred the next year. We’re really looking at what we call a scalable and portable model, and we think that by the end of next year we can really prove that and start getting into hundreds and maybe even thousands in the next two to five years. That’s what we want to do and we’ve already been approached by many different cities who want to use our model - not only in LA, but all over.

Those numbers seem like remarkable accomplishments so far. Two years is a very young company. So how can interested parties become involved with Imagine LA? What are your events and volunteer opportunities?

Our volunteer opportunities are pretty specific. But in terms of getting involved with Imagine LA, there’s a couple of ways. One, you introduce us to your faith community if you’re part of a faith community or if you have a friend that’s part of a faith community. So even if you’re only loosely connected, you can do it. You know, you don’t have to be a member of the church. You have to go through the training and you have to do the background checks, but if you have a link in some way to that faith community, you can join the team. Also, we have different events, like we have a Big Sunday event every year where we move a whole bunch of families in at one time, we have different bigger events where people can come out and do hands-on, cool stuff.

Tell us more about the event this Thursday?

On Thursday November 12, Imagine LA is hosting a live music event at Busby’sEast from 7:30 to 11pm. There are great bands (Albert, Thad's, Claire Holley, and Bobby Syvarth), a taco bar, over twenty beers on tap, and tons of games. It’s a free event but donations are welcome, so it’s a great way to support Imagine LA and our families.

Imagine LA is located in Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard. To find out how you can get involved and to view their great events schedule, visit Imagine LA.

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