Los Angeles is trying a new way to deal with the problems of the nation's largest homeless population that is as bold as it is basic. It is giving them homes.
Not all of them, but 25 percent of its 51,000 people living in cars, on streets, in campsites – the ones who are called "chronically homeless" because they have no clear path to getting off the streets on their own.
Just as surprising is who got the ball rolling: local businesses with support from the Obama administration. The businesses raised $5 million and the government matched them with $8 for every dollar they raised.
The eye-opening and timely seminar called "Smart Solutions" was given Saturday at Cabrillo College for about 300 people in Santa Cruz County who regularly deal with the problem, including elected officials, police, religious groups, neighborhood associations, social workers and homeless people. Santa Cruzans have recently become more aware of the age-old problem after two of the city's three homicides were committed by homeless people.
There has also been new awareness among surfers and young families after surf school owner Dylan Greiner being washed out to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary from seaside caves populated by homeless people.
"Give them a secure, safe place to live and it all changes," Jerry Neuman told the seminar at Cabrillo College.
Neuman, an attorney who is chair of the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness, said that the approach to homelessness for decades has been to build more shelters and give more food. But that only perpetuates the problem, he said.
"Our job is to get people off the streets and into homes," he said. "They want homes. They don't want to participate in a system that makes them fail."
Economically, he said, it works, cutting costs by 40 percent. Part of the process involves careful registering of the homeless population and cataloging of their needs, something that has been lacking for 30 years.
The quarter of the homeless population that is now incapable of getting off the streets uses 75 percent of the money given to help homeless people, he said. The money is spent on things such as hospital bills, police time and abating criminal activity.
If those people have places to live and a chance to get support services, the cost to the government goes way down, he said. Then the money can go to the other 75 percent who are homeless by circumstance and are capable of finding jobs with financial help and services that aren't available to them now.
"I had a life-changing moment during his talk," said a CPA who just happened by the meeting."When he talked about the NBC executive, I realized so much."
Neuman told the story of a woman who was a honcho at NBC but ended up homeless and on drugs for 11 years. When she finally got an apartment through Neuman's groups' efforts she was able to start working her way back to the life she once had.
But, she said, after a year off the streets, she still eyed garbage bins wondering what kind of food they held. The transitions in both directions are bumpy, he said.
Neuman said his task force has worked for 10 months trying to simplify the problem of helping the homeless. At one point it broke up into groups and played a game like the board game Life.
The goal was to get a person into a home, going through the maze of all the steps it would take. At first, the solution took 49 steps and 168 days. Then, he locked them in the room until they could make it simpler.
The result was that they found ways to cut it to 18 steps over 31 days, a significant cut in time that could mean the difference between life and death for someone on the streets, he said.
That same approach is what his task force is trying. The amount of money that goes to fighting homelessness in Los Angeles is staggering. Government spends $875 million and churches and donations add another $500 million.
The proportions spent on the 2,800 homeless people in Santa Cruz are comparable, according to Monica Martinez, director of the Homeless Services Center.
Martinez, who also spoke at the forum, said that cities up and down the coast have similar problems and many people in them claim that the homeless people come to their town because it provides so many services.
About 65 percent of the homeless people in every town are local; the others, because they are homeless, move from town to town. But the proportions are constant, whether it's Monterey, San Luis Obispo or Santa Cruz, she said.
She favors the Los Angeles approach and hopes to see if it can be done here. Neuman praised Santa Cruz saying that twice as many people showed up for this seminar than would have in Los Angeles.
Mayor Don Lane opened the session and in an interview said that the Obama administration has been taking serious steps toward cutting down on homelessness in groups such as the one chaired by Neuman.
Cities across the country are working not just on supporting the homeless, but on ending homelessness, he said.
Neuman told another story about a homeless woman at a crowded bus stop who had no where to go to the bathroom, so hid in back and used a yogurt cup.
He said she was trying not to embarrass the other people there and maintain some dignity. Giving her a home would help her get her dignity back, he said.
"We don't want our kids to have to face this," he added.