Back in 2004, attorney Jerry Neuman was driving in Hollywood with his then-4-year-old son, Jake, when the boy noticed a disheveled homeless man on a bus bench beside a shopping cart of belongings. Jake asked his father where the man lived.
“I explained that he didn’t have a home, that he slept right there and that there were many people who had to live on the streets,” Neuman, 50, a real estate and land use attorney, said during an interview in his downtown office. “Jake was perplexed by that; I could see his confusion and pain. It was just unfathomable to him that someone had to live in those conditions.”
On Jake’s fifth birthday, the boy walked into the Los Angeles Mission to deliver some of his birthday gifts to homeless children. “He said, ‘Dad, can you do something about this?’ And I promised ‘Yes, if I can do something, I will,’ ” Neuman said.
These days, the attorney is keeping his promise by co-chairing an ambitious program, Home for Good, which brings together myriad business, government and charitable organizations to end chronic homelessness (people homeless for more than a year) and to get all military veterans off the street in Los Angeles by 2016. By 2021, the goal is to house the rest of the transient population. “Los Angeles, for far too long, has been considered the homeless capital of the country, with 51,000 people on the streets every night,” Neuman said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Neuman has dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours – as well as pledged $60,000 of his own money over the next few years – to Home for Good, which last year placed permanent roofs over the heads of 3,300 of some of the most hard-core homeless. He said the program also will meet its goal of housing more than 4,000 people this year.
Home for Good uses a model known as “housing first,” which proposes that long-time transients, once stabilized in their own homes, will be more likely to seek treatment for substance abuse and other problems. Previously, the thinking was that treatment should come first, but that was far more expensive and ineffective, Neuman said. “On the street, the priority for these people is ‘How am I going to survive the night, and will my belongings still be here when I wake up in the morning,’” he said. “Getting a roof over their heads first means we can get them feeling safe and secure so they will be more likely to use the supportive services we have to offer. Otherwise, they will keep on cycling through emergency rooms and jails, which costs far more money.”
Neuman’s work with the homeless — and the $80,000 per year total he donates to homeless and other groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) — stems in part from his experience growing up the son of concentration camp survivors in Tucson, Ariz. “I used to count the people around our Shabbat dinner table, and it always seemed that people were missing,” said Neuman, whose father had three previous children who died in the war.
“But my parents instilled in me a very strong sense of both being an American and being part of the community,” he added. “They felt very strongly that this country offered them wonderful opportunities, and giving back to charity was, through their experience, just a part of who we were.”
Neuman was about to become SCI-Arc’s board chair and was serving on the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee in 2009 when the United Way called a meeting with Chamber leaders to create what would become Home for Good. Neuman attended as a way of keeping his promise to his son, but the project sounded daunting. “We’d been hearing for so long that the problem is so insurmountable that people had become tone deaf to the issue,” he said. So much so that when an official asked for someone to chair the new task force, only Neuman raised his hand.
But he had conditions: “I said I wasn’t interested in previous concepts or another plan from some government agency that was going to go nowhere,” he recalled. “The system was broken and didn’t need to be fixed — we needed a new system. I wanted to look at the problem not from a pure social-advocacy standpoint, but from a business model: an efficient dollars-and-cents perspective.”
One of the first steps was figuring out the economics of the issue: With Home for Good co-chair Renee Fraser and other volunteers, Neuman learned that $650 million of the $875 million in tax dollars spent annually on Los Angeles’ homeless went to services for long-time denizens of the street. “It was insanity; a system set up to manage homelessness rather than end it,” he said. “It’s far more costly to keep people on the street than it is to house them. We needed to take the most vulnerable people, who are likely to die on the street tomorrow, and make them the priority.”
With this “housing-first” strategy in mind, Neuman helped establish a fund of $105 million from private donors and government agencies to guarantee housing and services for 1,000 individuals annually for 15 years. When he met with Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington, D.C., who referred to Los Angeles’ homeless policies as “dysfunctional,” he pledged to get city and county agencies to work together on the problem. “And we did,” he said.
Neuman’s colleagues have applauded his efforts: “Jerry’s leadership, and the commitment of his peers on [Home for Good’s] business leaders taskforce, are bringing us closer than ever to truly ending chronic and veteran homelessness in L.A.,” said Molly Rysman, the Los Angeles director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing. “Jerry has been a tireless and strategic leader, combining the insights and influence of the business community into the work of nonprofits and the public sector. As a result, today we have new paradigms, benchmarks and energy in our effort to end homelessness in L.A.”
Neuman becomes emotional when describing some of the people he has interviewed as part of the process. “I’ve met individuals who’ve been living in encampments in the Hollywood Hills, or under a bridge downtown or in bushes in Westwood,” he said. “All of them are victims in one way or another. Some have lost their jobs, some have been alcoholics, while others turned to prostitution as a way of supporting themselves.”
“Sometimes I see these conditions, and I reflect on what my parents went through during World War II — the living outdoors in areas filled with human filth and the carrying of all your belongings on your back. “When my father was liberated from the camps, he was hiding in a latrine,” Neuman said.
A member of both Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Congregation Shaarei Tefila, Neuman says his work comes from a profoundly Jewish place. “I have a firm belief that God created a world that was unfinished and imperfect, and it’s our job to find a way to perfect both ourselves and the world around us.”
For more information, visit www.homeforgoodla.org.