by Pat Raphael
Imagine a trapeze artist attempting a high stakes maneuver, jumping off a swing, and not having another swinger ready for the catch, after the aerial acrobatics. To the neighbors on the sidewalk, there was something familiar, in knowing that if the weather ever gets real bad, just go hang out by the skatepark in the late afternoons, and wait for the shelter bus to pick up and take a ride to the Armory. There you would get a hot meal, and a hot shower (shower shoes a plus), and if you’re the type who can fall asleep around other people, a warm dry bed. But somewhere in the halls of power, a high stakes big switch is being maneuvered, and to raise the degree of difficulty, this maneuver is being attempted during historically cold and rainy weather (throw in a few hail days too), where demand for shelter services will be at all time highs. Remove the net.
All this is happening as new leadership in the executive is promising results, and our new council representative is feeling pressure to deliver on the number one campaign issue that rode her into power. Here is where the upbeat messaging from the PR managers is diverging from the lived reality on the ground. The Council District’s Homeless Czar rolled out 211 with much fanfare — he describes a twenty minute wait time, and since the Armory is no longer available, you’ll get a motel voucher where, according to Traci Park at the BridgeHouse Zoom conference on March 22, these vouchers are for up to a two-year stay.
Wow. Sounds great. Just what my neighbor hanging out under the 7-11 awning might need. On Thursday, March 9th 5:25 PM, two days before the “atmospheric rivers” that the weather guy keeps harping on was due to hit, my initial call to 211. I spent about fifteen minutes on hold, then a Community Resource Agent came on the line and did her best to explain to me how shelter beds get activated. The city is broken down into zones, and if I am calling from a zone where beds are available, then I would be directed where to go, or transportation can be arranged. But if no shelter beds are available then motel vouchers would get activated. All this is being done at the direction of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. But before I could get my hopes up or get a question in, I was quickly told that all shelter beds are full and there are also no more motel beds available, city wide. But a glimmer of hope came at the end of that first call. The Agent told me that if the rain is not coming down right now, there might be resources that are not activated yet, and that I should call back in a few days to check if the rain brings more resources online.
Then comes a drenching weekend of cold and rain. During those rainy days, I did not see my neighbor for whom I made the initial call, so I never followed up as the Agent told me, and can not say if response improved during that March 10-11 rain storm.
Tony! Toni! Toné! singing “It Never Rains in Southern California” while another week with days of pour-down rain. On March 14, I see my homie with a blanket draped over a cart behind Staples just as the rain starts to drizzle. I told him the results of the last call, and I explained that if LAHSA releases motel vouchers he might be able to get one. “Anything’s better than this rain, bro. Make the call”
I called at 9:48 AM, “all circuits are busy” I called again. Nothing. Hang up and call right back. “all circuits are busy”. At 9:51 I called two more times, getting the same message. Then at 9:54 AM, my heart leapt with excitement as I got a ring tone instead of that busy message. Little did I know I was only just at the beginning of an all-morning long saga.
The voice prompts when calling 211 does some of the initial triage. Once it determined that I am not seeking shelter with children, and this is not a domestic violence call, it offers a website to go to, and for me to file a service request form, and I would get a call back from a Community Resource Agent. Going online was not an option for me, so I chose to stay on the line and wait for the next available agent.
During the rain, calling from a cell phone, my wait time was over two hours and 15 minutes. I am fortunate to have ready access to charging for my phone, but imaging my phone at 20 percent…. I could wait all morning, and as soon as the agent picks up, my phone goes dead.
But even then, finally getting an answer after over two hours waiting, things did not get much better. The next available agent came on the line and told me that the long wait was due to the high volume of calls seeking service. I didn’t want to feel like after all the wait, I wasn’t getting my time with the agent, but really there wasn’t much more to be said once the agent told me that all the shelter beds were full, and also all the motel rooms from the voucher program were also full. I asked her about the Oakwood rec center, which sometimes is opened as an inclement weather emergency shelter. She told me that this was not on her list of possible shelters, and that it was not up to her what resources are made available. Her job was simply to get on the line and tell me no beds or vouchers were available.
Once more a glimmer of hope as I was hanging up: I can register my telephone number, then I would get a text alert if something becomes available. Now I start wondering if something is better than nothing… especially when that something is just a text to tell you there is nothing.
The optimist in me hopes against hope. I registered and immediately began receiving text alerts at all hours of day and night. All together, a total of eight texts over four days. No-Reply texts with slightly varying verbiage saying the same thing: “Do not reply, shelter beds may be available, but we will contact you if you are next in line. No motel vouchers are available”. Some even go further and say, “you have 1 hour from initial outreach to respond to secure a spot”. Wow… does that mean I am close to getting a bed? Nope. Never did a text say anything more than nothing is available.
Having gone through all this myself, it is clear that the 211 system needs more humans available to answer calls. Of course some days may need more help than others, and a responsive, nimble system will understand how to up its capacity when demand peaks. I wonder if it ever dawned on LAHSA and the non-profit that runs the 211 call center to tap into their clients to expand their pool of candidates. Substantial outreach should easily be able to identify the unhoused who can be trained to do this job. Good people who care exist, they are not unicorns. It just takes an intentional effort to find and hire these candidates. And in hiring these workers who care, people on the ground being served will find an empathetic agent on the other end who intimately knows what you are going through. Of course agents can’t just care and not have city backing of resources for them to offer, so the intermediate and long term aim should be increasing capacity. We want when a drugged out tweaker feels like they’ve had enough of running the streets, for there to actually have help available.
Then, just as fast as they started coming, the texts stopped. No outreach agent ever made contact or any follow-up inquiry to know of the shelter needs or my status in the elements. I guess if that two and a half hours didn’t beat it out of me, I can call back again and try to restart the process. But really, why would I put myself through all that? I know rain comes and goes. Most of the unhoused, have just resigned to fend for themselves… maybe catch a spot under the library porch? If the 41.18 patrol doesn’t come through in the middle of the night during the rain (like what happened at the handball courts at 3am during the rain)…. maybe, just maybe, this cold night might include some sleep.