The Fight to End Homelessness and Food Insecurity Begins on the USC Campus — But It Doesn't End There
Though Los Angeles is making progress on homelessness, there’s still a long way to go. Learn what USC is doing to raise awareness and strengthen community partnerships.
In the Los Angeles area alone, 57,000 people experienced homelessness in the last year. In a commitment to address these issues, and ultimately to end homelessness, USC has launched several initiatives to provide immediate assistance to those struggling with homelessness, as well as to create long-term solutions that address the crisis.
We sat down with Brenda Wiewel, director of the Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness at USC, to learn more about the current state of homelessness in Los Angeles and the school’s plans to make an impact in the surrounding community.
USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: How has the most recent Los Angeles Homeless Count helped to hone in on the issue of homelessness across the city?
Brenda Wiewel: We conducted the most recent count in partnership with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Administration (LAHSA), and found that the homeless population has increased by 23 percent since this time last year. That’s obviously discouraging, especially since we housed 14,000 people during the previous year.
We also found, unsurprisingly, that minorities bear a disproportionate burden of homelessness. African Americans are only 9 percent of the U.S. population but make up nearly 40 percent of the homeless population. Likewise, Latino homelessness increased by 63 percent. Veterans are struggling, too — their rate of homelessness had been steadily dropping until this year, when it rose again. We believe we’re seeing the results of a lack of investment in transition programs and ongoing support for returning vets.
Our most surprising finding, though, is that one in every five students in our community colleges suffers from housing and/or food insecurity. At four-year colleges, it’s about one in 10. To respond to this, we’ve turned our focus inward toward our own community at USC. We want to know who’s struggling with housing or food here, and how we can help them succeed.
USC: What progress has been made at the university level since the initiative began?
BW: The Los Angeles Homeless Count made clear that we need to provide better support to young adults, so we’ve been building out support for the 18-25 age range, especially for students coming out of the foster care system and first-generation immigrants from low-income families.
Our focus so far has centered around increasing awareness of the resources available and improving access channels. For example, people on CalFresh — our local food benefit program — now have access to the farmers market on campus, and we’ve added new water and snack stations around campus. We’ve also started a virtual food pantry at USC where struggling students can pick up $25 coupons. Now, we’re looking at how to take leftover money from the campus meal plan and make it available to students in need.
On the housing front, we’re trying to establish emergency housing coverage for students who are in the midst of negotiating their financial aid packages, so that they don’t end up on the street. We’ve also been able to make our emergency and counseling services available 24/7, so that students can consult professionals trained to assess food and housing insecurity issues.
USC: How is the university bringing more awareness to the issue of homelessness?
BW: We’re spearheading a student awareness week in November to promote these issues. On our Health Sciences campus, our student group is running a day-long event, including a talk about raising funds for our community-based effort with United Way. There will be a bigger event at our main campus, with a panel of distinguished speakers, documentary screenings and booths for community organizations and agencies to share their work and recruit volunteers.
We especially need volunteers for the next homeless count, and the university will be doing widespread outreach to faculty, staff and students to recruit volunteers. We’re getting the word out in the residence halls, and I’ve connected with a professor at the school of engineering. She’s hoping to set something up so that students can get credit in their courses if they come to one of the activities during Homelessness Awareness Week. We’re also putting together a guide to be distributed around campus so faculty can begin discussions around homelessness in their classrooms.
USC: How are the initiatives being carried out beyond campus and into the city? And what have been some of the biggest successes?
BW: We recently hosted a panel with a local group to focus on what we can do in the areas surrounding campus. It was a great exchange of ideas between residents and our researchers at USC, and we appreciated the community’s thoughts and feedback.
Our efforts are building upon the groundswell of activity that already permeates the community. Our representatives at the county level have passed a quarter cent sales tax that generates funds to ramp up core services for the homeless. The tax enables expanded outreach, placement, case management and housing subsidies for vulnerable populations.
But our aspirations don’t stop there. We’ve partnered with the city of Los Angeles to create training curriculum on homelessness for their staff. We are also helping the city look at innovative ways to build affordable housing with housing typology. By collaborating with construction partners and vendors around the city, we can quickly build low-cost units that alleviate some of the pressures of homelessness.
Ultimately, everyone needs to be a part of solving the problem. We need to bring the business community, the faith community and the academic community to the table.
USC: As you’re preparing for the next homeless count in 2018, what are your goals in the year to come?
BW: The city continues to struggle with personnel recruitment to run their programs, so one of our big goals is to reform the pipeline. At USC, we’ve created a special homeless services track at the university undergraduate level where students can receive specialized training and explore the careers available to them after graduation. What we’re really missing are social workers and lawyers with expertise in homelessness. There’s immediate demand for people in those positions, but we also need to lay the infrastructure for a skilled professional workforce.
Slowly but surely, we’re building a framework. We’re collaborating — and as a result, our initiatives are gaining momentum. I believe we’ll see a lot of gains in the near future, and I’m thrilled that USC is invested in this partnership and bringing resources to the table.