By David Wagner, KPCC

CALL CENTERA Chicago call center worker asks callers how they ended up on the verge of homelessness. Credit: DAVID WAGNER/KPCCDespite billions in new spending, the number of people experiencing homelessness keeps rising in cities across California. 

In Los Angeles, taxpayers have put $1.2 billion toward the development of new homeless housing. But some officials are frustrated by how long it’s taking to build these units, which can cost more than $500,000 each

With an estimated 150 people becoming homeless every day in L.A. County, some are now calling for new strategies to reduce homelessness. 

“We can't build our way out of this,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price. 

“The construction of housing is not the answer alone. And it's not happening fast enough to really make an impact,” he said. 

Earlier this year, Price put forward a motion for Los Angeles to study — and possibly copy — homeless prevention strategies that have worked in other cities, like New York and Chicago.  

The move is part of an emerging push to address the crisis evident on California streets by doing more to prevent people from ending up on those streets in the first place.

The hope is that catching more people before they fall — through small grants to avoid eviction and other kinds of targeted help — could help bring down homelessness overall. It’s not an easy task, but research shows that strategies in cities like Chicago and New York have been working. 

BEHIND ON RENT AND CLOSE TO HOMELESSNESS

When Southeast Chicago resident Cedric Moore got laid off from his financial consulting job earlier this year, it came as a big shock. 

He had savings to keep himself and his three daughters afloat for awhile. But that dried up quickly, and he didn’t have a fallback plan. 

“I'm the type of person who tries to think of it from all angles,” Moore said. “And it was lost on me this time. It was completely lost. I had nothing.”

Moore fell three months behind on rent. His landlord gave him notice to pay up in five days or be evicted. He didn’t know where he or his daughters would stay if they lost the apartment. 

“The fear of becoming homeless was more than real. It was abundant. It kept me up at night,” Moore said. 

Desperate for help, Moore called the city. To his surprise, an actual person picked up the phone. 

Chicago funds a homeless prevention call center staffed with workers who can connect callers with emergency aid to help pay for things such as back rent and utility bills. Chicago city officials say that in 2018, they distributed $3.7 million in prevention funds to nearly 3,000 households. 

Because Moore got help covering his back rent, he was able to avoid eviction and keep his family out of a shelter. 

“I slept for about ten hours that night,” Moore said. “I felt like myself again.”

Moore recently found a new job. He’s getting back on his feet. With some careful budgeting, he expects he’ll be able to buy his daughters Christmas gifts and cover his rent moving forward. 

If that call hadn’t connected him to help at just the right moment, he doesn’t know where he’d be today. 

IN CHICAGO, A CALL CENTER CAN BE A LIFELINE

The homeless prevention call center is what makes Chicago’s prevention program unique.  

It’s a centralized point of entry for people in crisis. Rather than scattering funding across a wide network of service providers, workers at the call center can see what state and local funding is available throughout the system at any given time.  

“It definitely streamlines it,” said Wendy Avila, who oversees the city-funded call center run by Catholic Charities.  

Workers answer phones throughout the day, screening callers for eligibility. Then, they point clients to service providers in their neighborhoods who can help. 

In other cities, people in crisis may not be able to find this kind of help in one place. Avila said the call center is a big improvement over how Chicago’s prevention program used to work.  

“Prior to the call center, people would actually have to go to different agencies and see where money is available,” she said. “If they ran out, they ran out. The public didn’t know that until you actually went to the agency.” 

Cities like Los Angeles already have prevention programs. But some advocates see Chicago’s call center as a model for centralizing those programs, in order to better and more quickly help Californians on the verge of homelessness.

According to a preliminary analysis carried out by researcher Janey Rountree of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, about 2,800 households have enrolled in prevention programs funded by Measure H, a sales tax increase passed by Los Angeles voters in 2017. 

Her analysis found that some of those households did not receive financial aid. Instead, a case manager tried to help them resolve their crisis without funds. But Rountree found those who did receive financial aid were much less likely to end up homeless a year later.  

“If people are truly in crisis and they're meeting the eligibility criteria for prevention, they will have better outcomes if they receive short-term financial assistance,” Rountree said. 

RESEARCHERS LOOK AT WHAT’S WORKING 

Researchers who have studied other cities’ programs say targeting financial aid to the right people at the right moment makes a real difference. 

“Providing emergency financial assistance does, in fact, reduce homelessness,” said Notre Dame economist James Sullivan.  

For a study published in 2016, Sullivan and his colleagues examined outcomes from Chicago’s call center. They found that people who called when funding was available were 76% less likely to become homeless. Those findings held true even a year later.  

For most recipients, emergency financial aid didn’t simply delay a spell of homelessness. It helped people overcome a crisis and stay in their homes long-term. 

“That was one of the things we worried about,” Sullivan said. “Maybe this kind of assistance just postpones the inevitable. What our research showed was that's not the case.” 

Successful prevention can also save money over the long-term. Giving someone a couple thousand dollars to avoid eviction can end up being much cheaper than putting them up in a city-funded shelter for months. 

“New York shelters are quite expensive,” said Columbia University economist Dan O'Flaherty, who co-authored a 2016 study looking at prevention outcomes in New York City. 

New York’s program, called Homebase, has 23 locations across the city tasked with helping people avoid homelessness through emergency funding, landlord mediation and other services. 

O'Flaherty and his colleagues found that Homebase reduced shelter entries by 5 to 11% during the program’s first four years. They wrote that savings for the city’s shelter system were likely larger than what it cost to run Homebase. 

“It does help, and it doesn't cost a lot of money,” O'Flaherty said. 

Notre Dame economist James Sullivan stops short of saying that Chicago’s program saves the city money. But he said when the cost of homelessness to individuals — including shortened life expectancy — is factored in, the benefits of prevention clearly outweigh the costs. 

“It's a good social investment, even if it's not going to directly improve the bottom line for the city of Chicago,” Sullivan said. 

THE LIMITS OF PREVENTION 

Experts say the biggest problem in homelessness prevention is figuring out who actually needs help. They call this a “targeting” challenge. 

For instance, an estimated 600,000 people in L.A. County are spending 90% or more of their income on rent. Yet most of them manage to avoid homelessness.  

How can service providers identify who among the very poor and precariously housed would actually become homeless without an infusion of financial aid? 

Sullivan argues prevention becomes more cost-effective when targeted to the lowest income recipients. 

Maura McCauley, who directs homeless prevention policy for Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services, said the call center’s screening process helps the city identify people who actually stand to benefit from one-time financial assistance.  

Clients need to have a qualifying financial crisis, like job loss or a medical emergency. And they must show that they can become self-sufficient after receiving financial aid. 

“You have to demonstrate that the crisis can be resolved,” McCauley said. “Our work to really target the resources in the right way at the right time is so critical.” 

 Beefing up prevention would not solve all of California’s problems. Nearly 130,000 people across the state are already homeless, past the point of being helped through prevention. And experts say one-time financial aid probably isn’t the right approach for people at risk of homelessness due to severe mental health or addiction issues. 

Prevention may not work for everyone. But back in Chicago, social worker Katie Tapert Mercado said for her clients, a month or two of rent relief is often all it takes to avert a spell of homelessness. 

“They're able to become stable and keep their apartment and everything they've earned,” she said. 

Chicago prevention funding recipient Cedric Moore said if he didn’t get help covering his back rent, he and his daughters may have ended up in a taxpayer-funded shelter. 

“If you don't want to help now, you're going to end up helping a lot more later on,” Moore said. 

It’s a lesson California has been learning the hard way. 

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.

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