Consistent Income & Mental Health: A fresh look at homelessness in Culver City

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by Hannah Ehrlich and Benjamin Mack

It’s never been easier to ignore homelessness with the COVID-19 pandemic looming over us. We commute less, work from home more, and worry chiefly about issues that affect us urgently, like finances, employment, our health and the health of our family members, and so on. But the fact is that homelessness and the problems related to it — cluttered and dirty streets, rampant sickness and drug use, ineffective use of police, and massive public expense — especially in Culver City — are not magically going to disappear. It’s up to us as a community to change up our approach. 

NPR’s All Things Considered tells us Los Angeles’ homeless population has increased for the third time in four years to 66,433, up a scary 12.7% from 2019. UCLA researchers report more than half of all LAPD homeless arrests are for nonviolent offenses, including failure to appear and drug use. A recent Los Angeles County study of just over 10,000 cases found that homeless individuals cost taxpayers almost five times the expense compared to individuals placed in work programs that provide a path to supportive housing.

We are not experts; we are just two soon-to-be social workers. But as humans who care for creating a world that is fair to everyone, what do we do? How do we give our neighbors in Culver City who are homeless an immediate means to rejoin society?

Our plan to engage Culver’s homeless population is simple and measurable. It’s designed to provide homeless individuals a path to become employed and escape homelessness while minimizing taxpayer burden and leveraging the power of – you guessed it – social workers. 

Step 1: Onboard public employment partners like the Los Angeles County Parks Department and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, or local private partners like SONY, Apple, and/or Netflix. Their massive employment networks can help us identify and fill available roles for both part-time and full-time opportunities that are ideal for those who may lack education or workplace experience. Not everyone will opt into this type of work program, but homeless individuals who actively want change may easily participate. 

Step 2: Each new hire meets with a supervisor on site to go over employment duties and sign an employee agreement. During this time, they can ask questions to fully understand their commitment and compensation. Employees in the program are compensated in the form of a voucher, which can be redeemed as a cash equivalent for items such as, but not limited to, food items, transportation, clothing, medical expenses, and housing. 

Step 3: To set expectations and allow individuals to learn habits that may be quite foreign to them given their living conditions, participants receive their vouchers only after a brief on site consultation with a Los Angeles County social worker. These consultations are the only way to obtain the voucher, which also provides each individual the opportunity to receive broad support from mental health care professionals. 

From a data perspective, these consultations will increase our line of sight into Culver City’s micro level homeless issues while also mitigating taxpayer expense by helping homeless individuals who participate to address their most immediate needs. From a mental health perspective, meeting with a social worker ensures that homeless individuals partaking in this program are aware of, and most importantly, have access to, local resources that will benefit them long term. From a funding perspective, we would leverage Los Angeles County funding from programs like Measure H, which creates 0.25% sales tax across 88 local municipalities (including Culver City) in order to fund homeless services and housing. 

It’s important to remember we are not reinventing the wheel. Many organizations have seen varying degrees of success in creating similar programs. Our biggest differentiator here is that we have learned from policies that have failed. Our goal is to pair social service with opportunity for employment to provide homeless individuals a path to a better life, and to better allocate our (your) tax dollars by incorporating social workers in the process.

Hannah Ehrlich and Benjamin Mack are Masters of Social Work students, Class of 2022 at Suzanne-Dvorak School of Social Work at University of Southern California.