A few minutes into the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count on the night of Jan. 27, Zev Yaroslavsky turned to the driver of the minivan carrying the Los Angeles County supervisor and two of his deputies and asked where the young man was originally from. Tomasz Babiszkiewicz, an outreach case manager with People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), told Yaroslavsky in lightly accented English that he had come to the United States from Poland seven years earlier to study at University of Southern California.
“I’m a Trojan,” he said, “and I know you’re a Bruin, right?”
Angelenos know Yaroslavsky. He has been in the public eye at least since he was elected to the L.A. City Council at age 27, long before his unmistakable mustache began to grey. After 20 years representing the city’s 5th District, Yaroslavsky was elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 1994. Now 62, Yaroslavsky will soon be termed-out as supervisor of the county’s 3rd district, and there’s much speculation that he will run for Los Angeles mayor when that job opens up in 2013.
But even the Angelenos who recognized the supervisor on Thursday night — and many did — might not know about Yaroslavsky’s crusade to end chronic homelessness in Los Angeles. As supervisor, he works on many policy issues — transportation, the environment, healthcare and others — but more than any other elected official, Yaroslavsky has dedicated himself to finding a solution for Los Angeles’ homelessness problem. “This is one issue no politician wanted to get into this much — at least not at this level,” Yaroslavsky said.
It started with a conversation Yaroslavsky had with his daughter. She described sitting next to a homeless man and realizing that, in the 20 minutes that she sat talking with him, hundreds of people had passed by and none had made eye contact with either one of them. Yaroslavsky recognized himself among those who turned away and was determined to look at the problem directly.
“You can ignore something you don’t make eye contact with, but if you make eye contact with it, you go eyeball-to-eyeball with a human being who is suffering — it’s hard to just turn away and walk away,” he said.
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So, in December 2007, he turned toward Los Angeles’ most vulnerable homeless individuals in an effort called Project 50. Led by Yaroslavsky’s senior field deputy, Flora Gil Krisiloff, whom he calls “a force of nature,” the team behind Project 50 went out to Skid Row downtown in order to identify the 50 most vulnerable homeless people, the ones least likely to survive on the streets. A $3.6 million pilot project, spearheaded by Yaroslavsky, offered those chronically homeless individuals permanent supportive housing, even before attempting to deal with their drug or alcohol addictions, their mental and physical afflictions, or any of their other problems.
“You can’t walk up to a homeless person and say, ‘Hey we’re going to provide you a housing unit, but before we do, we want you to take a blood test, a breathalyzer test, we want you to see a psychiatrist, and for the hell of it, we want you to take a lie-detector test, too,’ ” Yaroslavsky said, explaining why housing needed to come first. “The guy’ll tell you to take a hike.”
This strategy, called “Housing First,” had been successfully implemented in New York, Denver and many other cities before Yaroslavsky put it into practice here.
Los Angeles, with more homeless people than any of those cities, is routinely referred to as the country’s homeless capital. In August 2010, a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times looked at chronic homelessness on Skid Row and at Project 50. The series concluded that while the project had been successful, it required a tremendous effort on the part of the program’s staff, and a great deal of political will.
That will comes from Yaroslavsky — even though he knows that working to end homelessness doesn’t appeal to everyone.
“You should see the comments that the L.A. Times got on Project 50,” Yaroslavsky said. “Not one of them was positive. They were all ‘Let them die in the street’ kind of comments, ‘They made their bed, let them lie in it.’ ‘I don’t want my tax dollars going to house these drug addicts.’ ”
Last Thursday night, 16 members of Yaroslavsky’s staff volunteered for the Los Angeles street homeless count. Every city in the country that gets funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is required to do this kind of count every two years.
Babiszkiewicz drove the PATH minivan slowly around Hollywood’s streets, but the Yaroslavsky team did not come across many homeless people. The van weaved in and out of parking lots, looking for vehicles in which people might be living. Aside from one camper on the street, there was nothing in the lots — especially not in ones with attendants collecting $7 per car.
Before pulling out of a CVS lot into the street, Babiszkiewicz stopped to let a pack of young girls walk by.
“I guess that tight skirts are in,” Yaroslavsky said.
“You need to get out more,” Alisa Belinkoff Katz, his chief deputy, told him.
“I went to a rave on New Year’s Eve. That’s about as ‘out’ as I’m going to get,” Yaroslavsky said.
By the end of their trip around the area, the group had identified just four homeless individuals and the camper, far fewer than expected. Even the Greyhound bus station and its lot on Cahuenga, a popular place for homeless people to congregate and bed down, was empty. Police, it turned out, had cleared it a few hours earlier.
Meanwhile, volunteers in a nearby census tract counted 26 individuals, four encampments and three RVs. “I was surprised to see that there were that many people within a block of my office,” said Kerry H. Morrison, the executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance. “Normally during the day you would not see any homeless people.”
At 11 p.m., Yaroslavsky, Krisiloff, Katz and Babiszkiewicz decided to circle around the streets again, hoping that the lateness of the hour would mean that more people who might not have been visible earlier would be found later on.
They were right. The second circuit turned up an additional 13 homeless individuals, making the count 17 in all. In an e-mailed statement on Jan. 31, Yaroslavsky cautioned against drawing any conclusions from any single team’s count. “This is a very worthwhile effort, because it gives us a true count of the number of homeless on the streets of L.A. County,” Yaroslavsky said. “It provides us a road map of how and where to concentrate our resources for housing the homeless.”
The results of this year’s count will be announced later this year, but Yaroslavsky and his staff aren’t just sitting and waiting for the results. They are beginning plans to launch a new initiative modeled along the lines of Project 50, to be rolled out in West Los Angeles specifically targeting homeless veterans.