Long Beach is changing the tone of the homelessness conversation.
By Branden Raulston
Long Beach community members gathered at a not-so-typical town hall meeting Monday, centered around compassion and meant to inform the public about the issue of homelessness in the city.
Compassionate Town Hall: Homelessness in Long Beach brought hundreds of concerned and curious residents to Bay Shore Church in Belmont Shore. The event, hosted with the help of community organizer Justin Rudd, aimed to guide the conversation about homelessness into a new direction.
“A couple of years ago, when I first moved to Long Beach, Justin, who attends this church, agreed to help me find my way around the community and some of the service agencies. We visited some of the facilities that work with homeless persons and we came up with this idea,” says David Clark, Senior Minister of Bay Shore Church. “Over the last couple of years as we’ve gauged sort of the temperature about the issue of homelessness at some of the other forums where they get kind of hostile and mean sometimes, [we thought] wouldn’t it be great to have a place that is focused on compassion and what opportunities are out there?”
Over 20 different speakers from around the community shared information about homelessness and the organizations and programs that are available to assist them. The event also let residents mingle with the speakers for more information on opportunities to volunteer and assist homeless persons they encounter on the street.
Johnny Dodson, a Homeless Outreach Officer for the LBPD, urged residents to begin helping the homeless with more than just some spare change. Giving a homeless person money may make someone feel good about themselves, and that’s fine. But it is only helping the homeless person in the short-term. It is impossible to know how they might go spend that money Dodson says.
“I appreciate that you guys want to do something nice. It’s in our nature. We want to do nice things,” Dodson says. “But we have to try to change our mindset to doing the right thing instead of sometimes doing the nice thing.”
He believes that if the community really wants to help the homeless long-term they need to become educated so they can pass information onto the homeless about assistance services. That starts with building relationships and treating the homeless with dignity.
“When you drive around and you see these people, acknowledge that they are there. These are people we’re talking about, these aren’t stray cats and dogs. These are human beings,” Dodson says. “Every one of these people has a different story, and that’s where I need to ask you guys to please be patient … It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Arlene Mercer, the executive director of Urban Community Outreach, gave a compelling and heartfelt speech that not only humanized the struggle of homelessness but also offered tangible solutions to some of the hurdles the homeless face.
“They don’t always look like us, but inside they are like us. They have hearts like us and they have wishes like us, a lot of them,” Mercer explains.
She says that Long Beach motels are consistently filled with homeless that pay the bed tax to sleep indoors as often as they can, but money from that tax is not moving into the Housing Trust Fund each year like it should. She would like to see more money go towards the fund.
Mercer also notes that Section 8 assistance doesn’t always come to the rescue in the way it should because of the 60-day-approval process that deters landlords, afraid of missing out on two months of rent. She proposes money be moved from the Housing Trust Fund to ease the burden of the landlord accepting Section 8 tenants.
Woven into her productive suggestions were many words of encouragement that spoke to the overall tone of the meeting.
“I know a risk-free guarantee on what works to eliminate homelessness, and it’s not a secret. Just work with them,” Mercer urges with a smile. “Talk with them, love them, one person at a time. And when you talk with them and are really listening, you’ll hear the things that could really change their lives.”
Megan Lasswell is a local resident that attended the meeting. She has been disturbed by some of the ugly conversations about homelessness she has come across on social media. When she heard about a “compassionate” meeting taking place she knew she wanted to attend, and was pleasantly surprised by the number of organizations looking for volunteers.
“I’m really excited. I have a bunch of places to look into. I’m going to find somewhere to volunteer. I’m motivated,” Lasswell says.
She came with her friend Nick Cohen, another local resident. They have both grown concerned about the homeless population, noting an increase in the number of people they see sleeping on 2nd Street. Cohen was drawn to the compassionate theme because it aligns with his own convictions.
“I care about them, just like anyone,” Cohen says. “I think the compassionate approach speaks to me so much more than treating it as a problem. It’s an opportunity to help someone.”