I asked the Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in L.A., what he thought of the recent homeless counts.
“Steve, it is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall,” he told me.
In fact, Bales begged to differ with the results of the last homeless count published in 2009 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which said the numbers in Los Angeles County were down.
LAHSA counted 42,694, excluding Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale, which count their own.
When LAHSA said there was a 70 percent decrease in homeless families, Bales was incredulous. His shelter, one of the largest in the nation, had to open a separate floor just for homeless families. Some 900 homeless families knocked on his door that year. For the first time in his career, Bales was seeing homeless father-and-children families. He suggested there was a 40 percent
Huge unemployment and the spike in home foreclosures driving this number up? Ya think? It doesn’t take a government agency using taxpayers’ money to come to this conclusion. But in fact, it didn’t. The government was way off.
Which leads me to my point. A few weeks ago I participated in a homeless count and wrote about it. I’ve concluded it was a waste of time and resources. Instead of counting the homeless, let’s help them. I propose doing away with government counts of the homeless. Instead, give the money spent on bureaucracy and counts to the agencies already helping the homeless to get shelter, get counseling and make the transition back into society.
Yes, I’m talking about those faith-based organizations such as Union Rescue Mission and others in Skid Row where for years, law enforcement, hospitals, even mental hospitals would drive patients and leave them off at the curb. Bales helped bust the guilty parties in the “homeless dumping” scandals of the last few years.
In my mind, he’s probably the foremost authority on homelessness in the nation. So when he says the government count is wrong, I pay attention.
Full disclosure: I helped hire Bales at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena in January 2000, where he began an extensive homeless program. It is also where he raised the hackles of church and city leaders and, as he put it, “was run out of town.”
Since relocating at Union Rescue Mission, he and his board have increased the number of beds and services to meet a growing demand. Bales fought NIMBYism to build Hope Gardens in Sylmar, a three-year residential facility for mission families.
So when I ran into him Saturday at a Christian Community Development Conference in San Dimas at Pacific Life Bible College, I wanted the scoop on how to help. Not from a government bureaucrat but from a guy who has dedicated his life to being a Good Samaritan to “the least of his brothers.”
Also there was Amie Quigley, director of community outreach for Hollywood Presbyterian Church, whose wisdom touched me deeply.
When Hollywood asked her to help count the homeless, she took along some helpers — other homeless people. Who better to know where those experiencing homelessness will sleep? Rest? Live?
But the wisest thing she said was about introducing a program to help the homeless to her congregation. “Everyone wants to help the homeless, but no one wants to know the homeless.” And that is where the need is the greatest — in the knowing, loving, mentoring.
When asked about the rewards in their work, both said it was the friends they’ve made among those we see as faceless street dwellers.
For some, that can be a tall order. Befriend the homeless? No one should venture forth without training. That’s why a group called Family Promise (www.familypromise.org) is organizing in the San Gabriel Valley. They are asking churches to host four to five families overnight for a week four to five times a year. They use volunteer mental health counselors, job trainers, etc., to come alongside this vulnerable population. Some churches can provide facilities, other can provide volunteers only. The idea is to work collectively, so that no one group shoulders the burden.
There are 157 Family Promise networks around the nation; they have a 20-year track record. If you are interested, Family Promise is holding a planning meeting today, 7 p.m., at the First Baptist Church in Pasadena, 75 N. Marengo Ave., in the parlor.
This is an effort I can support.