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Photo by Brian Addison. Above: a woman passes by an encampment used as shelter along Long Beach’s beach bluff. Photo below by Baktaash Sorkhabi.
The discussion surrounding two very entangled subjects—housing and homelessness—came face-to-face as five advocates and experts from the region came to Long Beach to discuss the complexity of and compassion needed when examining homelessness.
A part of Longbeachize’s free talk series, Emphasize, we invited two filmmakers (Mark & Gabrielle Hayes), the subject of a film they produced (Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell), and two academics leading the local research on homelessness (Sara I. Villalta and Colin Bernatzky) to have a conversation with one another following a free screening of the documentary Skid Row Marathon.
Skid Row Marathon has the Hayeses following Mitchell, a judge in DTLA who creates a running club that begins at 5:45AM every Monday and Thursday. By providing homeless folks—ranging from addicts to those have lost their jobs and homes—a sense of stability twice a week, Mitchell has also provided them hope.
Though the film is not sugarcoated—not everyone is successful is their hard trek out of homelessness—it’s emotional depth and sense of compassion acted as the launching pad for a discussion at Long Beach’s Art Theatre post-screening.
“When you’re homeless, when you’re a drug addict, when you’re incarcerated… You are presented in a one-dimension manner,” Mitchell said when asked what it was like to have cameras following his running club around. “And one of the real hopes I have—and what I think [documentaries and people] can achieve—is present folks the idea that these people lead just as complex, complicated, conflicted lives as everybody in this theatre.”
But Mitchell was far blunt than this: he restated a quote, in which he gave to his son when he was graduating high school during the film, from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
This “neutrality” is echoed through our very own inaction and lack of acceptance in possible solutions—despite the fact that our inept attitude toward solutions is costing us more than actually attempting to solve homelessness.
A report by Villalta and Bernatzky, handed out at the forum, focused on Orange County but brought about astounding numbers that help us lend a more clear idea of the impact homelessness has on our entire societal structure: for its homeless population of 4,792 individuals, Orange County spent $299M annually.
If we were to apply that to Long Beach’s own 1,863 souls experiencing homelessness, that would be a rough cost of $115M annually; that is the burden on our hospitals, our police force, our fire force, our housing agencies, our nonprofits, our County, and of course, our City.
And when it comes to highlighting the restrictions that hinder us from solving homelessness, Villalta and Bernatzky both noted that their research led to many “surprises”—one of which was the fact that those not experiencing homelessness often dismiss the issue, cast stereotypes onto why it happens and to whom, and generally refuses to believe there are solutions because homeless folks “want to live that way” and “came here for the weather.”
“In our experience in Orange County—if you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know [about the mass displacement]—part of the issue is a failure or hesitancy to acknowledge that, A) there is an issue, and B) people who are experiencing homelessness are a part of our community,” Bernatzky said. “In the report, of the 252 people we talked to, 62% were living in Orange County for 10 years or more. These are people in our community and we often hear people say that they ‘come from elsewhere to enjoy the weather’ and our research shows that that is just not entirely true.”
Villalta also expounded a position she had explained to me earlier before the forum and it revolved around stability.
The key part of the issue for Villarta, from a sociological perspective, is that the marginalized need stability in order to escape marginalization; for the homeless, this means housing.
“There is zero stability for the mass majority of those experiencing homelessness,” she said during our conversation. “And we just expect these folks to jump into, let’s say, a rehab program and presume that if they don’t follow through, they are just not dedicated enough to changing their situation. The majority of the women I spoke to have been previously assaulted—including at shelters—so they use substances that help them stay away at night in order to protect themselves. How is that stability? How do we expect folks to overcome that?”
Housing as a form of alleviation in the issue was a sentiment often expressed throughout the night.
But perhaps most emotionally connective response was that of Judge Mitchell, who—in a sentiment repeated in various expressions throughout the night—is that the largest restriction is our very own society, our very own selves.
“A lotta people in the political domain—their intentions are good… I just don’t think the powers that be have figured out how do you spend the resources available to alleviate the problem,” Mitchell said. “One of the things I’ve learned in my limited effort to address the issue: it really requires a tremendous amount of effort on the behalf of the people… [The answer] is a combination of providing housing and resources that are so essential that you need human beings willing to deliver on it.”
In other words, we can’t achieve housing if we aren’t compassionate enough to know that the ails of the homeless are the ails of us all.