Downtown L.A. businesses try outreach to find permanent housing for the homeless

He sat on a pillow atop a plastic bucket, crocheting.

A man and woman approached. They were agents of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

He would be their first contact in Pershing Square, which by midmorning was already filling with homeless people, or those who appeared to be.

The man’s face brightened.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” he announced. “I’ll be 57.”

After exchanging small talk, the team moved on, leaving the man to spend his day on the sidewalk across from the Biltmore Hotel.

They weren’t there to roust him.

Though bicyclists in purple shirts may have become the public face of downtown business owners’ campaign to keep crime, filth and vagrancy at bay, a less noticeable initiative is also at work.

Each morning John Johnson and Sydney Sheiner set out to chat up the people who frequent places such as the Central Library’s Maguire Gardens, the 4th Street overpass and Pershing Square.

They make up one of the two homeless outreach teams funded by the downtown business improvement district. Their mission is to contact, interview and assist the roughly 130 homeless people living at any time in the west side of downtown, from 1st Street to Olympic Boulevard.

They chase no one away, but encourage everyone they engage with to start on the path to permanent housing.

Richard Bailey, the man sitting on the bucket, was already a success story. When Skid Row Housing Trust opened the Crest Apartments in Van Nuys last summer, Bailey got a home there, his first in 28 years.

But he’s still a regular in his old haunt where many of the seemingly homeless people actually have a roof somewhere, either in a shelter or a nearby single-room occupancy apartment. Bailey takes the Metro’s Red Line to Pershing Square.

It’s where he’s comfortable, Johnson said. He could relate.

“It took me a while to get used to the quiet of being inside,” he said. “When you’re out here on the streets for a long time you get used to all those certain noises.”

Johnson and Sheiner represent a collaboration of the private and nonprofit sectors in one facet of the city’s response to homelessness. The business improvement district, a private entity financed by property owner assessments in a 65-block area, pays their salaries through contracts with two social services agencies.

Sheiner, 25, is an outreach worker for PATH, or People Assisting the Homeless, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides services, including street outreach, shelter and housing construction.

Johnson is a transitional employee of Chrysalis, a skid row program that provides job preparation and temporary work experience. Unlike Sheiner, who has a college degree in social work, Johnson, 51, is an alumnus of the streets.

With a track record of addiction, incarceration and 24 years of homelessness, Johnson couldn’t find work even after a court-ordered program gave him a year of sobriety and training in telecommunications. Chrysalis put him to work.

First he did street maintenance and housekeeping. Then the business improvement district came up with the outreach idea.

The purple force had long been the business improvement district’s primary response to people sleeping in doorways and alleys. Supplementing enforcement by the L.A. Police Department, its security details have limited authority. “If somebody is curled up on private property … to say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t be here,’ ” said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

Besides the familiar bicycle-mounted security officers, about 30 Chrysalis employees are deployed with wheeled trash barrels to pick up litter.

Last year, Schatz said, her board of directors pushed her to do more.

“Since downtown is ground zero for the problem, they considered this to be one of the most important things the BID should undertake,” Schatz said.

They didn’t mean tougher enforcement. The directors committed $255,000 to form two outreach teams.

Initiatives by business groups to supplement homeless services traditionally provided by government and nonprofit agencies are becoming more common, said Jeremy Sidell, PATH’s chief development officer.

PATH has worked with business improvement districts in Hollywood, Westwood and the Figueroa Corridor just south of the Downtown Center area, Sidell said. Some of the collaborations are limited to advocacy and feeding programs but others, like Downtown Center, have hired PATH for outreach.

Homeless advocates, many of whom have battled business districts over security tactics they call abusive, are skeptical of the avowed good intentions.

“I think it becomes odd when on the one hand you work with the businesses who are attempting to shoo people out of the area, and at the same time you are now performing an outreach service to help people get off the streets,” said Pete White, executive director and founder of the L.A. Community Action Network on skid row. 

The group took part in a 2014 lawsuit alleging that private security in the Downtown Industrial Improvement District illegally confiscated homeless people’s property. The Downtown Center Business Improvement District was not named in the lawsuit.

Sidell said PATH considered these issues while negotiating the contract.

“We believe, and saw this in the BID, that there is not an underlying belief that this is a law enforcement issue,” he said.

Sidell said PATH negotiators saw a willingness to adapt to their concerns.

As an example, he said, the security team agreed to discontinue the use of walkie-talkies when PATH pointed out that homeless people felt intimidated by them.

White said he’d rather see business groups invest in shelters than in outreach for a shelter that doesn’t exist.

“Lots of folks do lots of outreach,” White said. “The question becomes, ‘Outreach to where?’ There’s definitely scores of outreach workers trying to help people find housing in places that don’t exist.”

In year one, the teams have had some success. They completed 196 assessments, placing 36 people into permanent housing and enrolling 56 in PATH’s housing services. Ninety percent of them are still off the streets, according to the business improvement district’s records.

“We were thrilled with that number,” Schatz said.

The impact on downtown’s streets is harder to measure. Every two weeks the outreach teams do a census. Johnson said the number has consistently been about 130. That means for every person placed into housing another shows up.

Schatz said that doesn’t concern her, considering that homeless numbers have been rising across the city. “Even treading water is better than not doing anything at all,” she said.

The highs and lows of outreach work came quickly into focus after Johnson and Sheiner left Bailey to crochet.

An elderly man with a frizzled beard lay asleep on the steps of Pershing Square.

“What do you need us to help you with?” Johnson asked.

The man ignored him.

“Whenever you’re ready we got a bed for you,” Johnson persisted. “Another day?”

“Yeah,” the man said.

Sheiner gave him a list of services for when he was ready.

Soon a park security officer told him he’d have to move to a bench. Instead, he walked east and disappeared.

Meanwhile, Sheiner’s attention was diverted to a woman who had pulled a wheeled suitcase to the foot of the stairs and was having an expletive-filled conversation with herself.

The woman didn’t put up much resistance. She was ready for a bed.

The team’s supervisor, Tescia Uribe, made a phone call.

Within a few minutes the PATH van pulled up. The woman got in. A victory.

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