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Building Trust on Skid Row: A Walking Tour with LA's Skid Row Housing Trust

Dan Kamyck

Across the County of Los Angeles, the homeless population has soared 23% over last year, totaling an estimated 58,000 people. According to the county's annual homeless count, one in four homeless people are “sheltered” in an emergency shelter or longer-term transitional program, and three in four homeless people live on the street.

These numbers have mobilized city residents to fight homelessness, and the County recently voted to approve a multibillion-dollar homeless program funded by two successful ballot measures. These measures will provide $1.2 billion in bond proceeds over a decade to build permanent housing. An additional $3.5 billion will be provided over 10 years for rent subsidies and services. The goal is to create or subsidize 15,000 housing units and pay for services to support those living in them.

The National Center for Complex Health & Social Needs recently hosted their annual conference, Putting Care at the Center. More than 600 leaders and practitioners convened in Los Angeles to foster a movement that aims to improve well-being for individuals with complex medical, behavioral, and social needs. Before the conference, LA’s Skid Row Housing Trust – a national leader in supportive housing – invited us to walk through several of their buildings in downtown LA to see the county's homeless crisis firsthand, and to understand how supportive housing models (such as those being funded by the new ballot measures) can change the trajectory of the crisis in the near future.

New Pershing Apartments

New-Pershing-Courtesy-of-Hilton-Foundatoin-1030x687.jpgOur first stop was New Pershing Apartments, one of the Trust’s premier projects that utilizes innovative design to promote a healthy living environment for homeless and low-income individuals. The building’s original Victorian facade, the last of its kind in Downtown Los Angeles, was carefully preserved, while the interior spaces were torn down and completely rebuilt. The building has 69 apartments of modern permanent supportive and affordable housing.

At New Pershing, Trust CEO Mike Alvidrez was careful to explain the distinction that they don’t offer housing “units” but rather “apartments,” and the language matters to residents. By taking a human-centric approach to every element of the resident experience, the Trust creates communities that uplift and support residents in living their best lives. Case managers work on-site, ensuring the best opportunity to develop trustworthy relationships. The top floor of the apartment building hosts a rooftop garden with ADA-accessible planters, resident-cultivated plants, and resident-created art.

New Genesis Apartments

new-genesis-courtesy-Skid-Row-Housing-Trust.jpgOur next stop was New Genesis Apartments. With 106 units, New Genesis has permanent supportive housing for people who were recently homeless, as well as affordable housing for low-income individuals. A LEED for Homes Platinum development, the building has an on-site health clinic and supportive services offices, as well as multiple community spaces, including a kitchen, lounge, and courtyard gardens.

Touring a vacant apartment brought several questions from practitioners on the tour. Do residents have laundry on site? Absolutely. Does the Trust bring in cleaners for the apartments? No – it is the resident’s apartment and they are in charge of keeping it clean. What’s the process of becoming a resident like? When somebody is ready to move in, the case management team will assess their personal living skills. A partnership with the University of Southern California occupational therapy program brings in OT students to address skills gaps and help residents take full advantage of their new home and independence.

Star Apartments

STAR-courtesy-Skid-Row-Housing-Trust.jpgOur final stop was the Trust’s Star Apartments, which provides permanent supportive housing to 100 formerly homeless individuals using innovative modular pre-fabricated units that are cantilevered over a two-story concrete superstructure. The apartments are terraced above a Health and Wellness Center on the second floor, which includes a community kitchen, art rooms, running/walking track, and space for supportive services. Residents also manage a raised community rooftop garden. On the day of our tour, residents had recently harvested the pineapples from the garden and Star staff led a smoothie-making nutrition class for residents – especially helpful for residents who have experienced a lack of dental care and thus need easy-to-eat foods, but may have never made their own smoothies.

The Star also maintains a robust art therapy program, led by local nonprofit Piece by Piece, which focuses on mosaic art workshops. Workshop facilitators are known to recruit residents while riding in the Star’s elevator, where they describe to residents the meditative, therapeutic process of making mosaic art. If residents stick with it, they can start to sell their work through the nonprofit’s pop-up shops and online store, and can even win art commissions or hourly work over time.

The ground floor of the Star houses a clinic operated by the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which serves both Star residents and the surrounding community. On the second level, the Star houses a co-located assisting living service. Local agency Libertana Home Health Care provides 24-hour in-home supportive services for qualifying residents, helping with cleaning, grocery shopping, and taking them to off-site medical appointments. Robust co-located services like these, delivered in partnership with local providers, help to keep residents healthy at home, reducing utilization of emergency services.

Housing First and Harm Reduction Models Work

People who have experienced homelessness, prolonged extreme poverty, poor health, disabilities, mental illness, and addiction can lead safe, stable lives. The security of a home is the first step toward safety, stability and community. Wellness begins with having a choice regarding the rules and conditions that impact one’s life, including whether and in which treatment to engage, and where to live. By developing supportive housing within the Skid Row community and treating their residents with dignity, Skid Row Housing Trust has become one of the country’s leading success stories in permanent supportive housing. 

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