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This week, John visits Stephanie Klasky-Gamer at The Fiesta, LA Family Housing’s new North Hollywood campus for people experiencing homelessness. Stephanie describes her organization’s process for placing housing throughout the city, which has an unprecedented rate of community acceptance. You’ll also hear Stephanie’s experience with a woman who had come the end of her options, but who is now flourishing thanks in part to an individualized approach that determines what is needed to become permanently housed.

Episode Transcript

John Bwarie:    Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community. For this episode, I spoke with Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, the President and CEO of LA Family Housing, who’s been leading the organization for more than a decade to provide a one stop shop to help people get off the streets and prevent individuals from becoming homeless in the first place. I met Stephanie at the construction site of LA Family Housing’s beautiful new central campus in North Hollywood that will provide a full spectrum of services, including permanent and temporary housing for more than 500 people. We discussed Stephanie’s approach to working with both LA’s homeless community, as well as the residential communities where they have built dozens of multi-family housing units. And she really gets that community is at the foundation of her work.

So you have this mission to serve people who need services that they probably can’t find anywhere else. You’re oftentimes a last stop, hopefully. They’ve gotten to a place where they don’t know where else to turn and you’re there for them. And sometimes as you do more work in the community, they may be a first stop or a preventative stop.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          That’s a really good point, because there was a lot of emphasis on homeless prevention and homeless diversion. And when we work with colleagues, whether it’s LA Unified School District, or Neighborhood Legal Services, or Northeast Valley Health Corporation, they’re seeing people at different stages of crisis. And sometimes it might be an earlier stage of crisis, and they immediately bring us in. Because there are some resources we could apply early that prevents a family from spiraling all the way down. And that’s our goal. Because the numbers of people experiencing chronic homelessness has grown. And in large part, that’s grown because it might’ve been people who, two years ago, experienced homelessness for the first time, but they could never get out of it quickly enough. And so staying homeless for two years threw them into a category of being chronically homeless.

John Bwarie:    And you say that no two stories of people experiencing homelessness are the same. This is what you promote, that everybody’s unique and differently.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Absolutely.

John Bwarie:    How do you work with people experiencing homelessness to understand their unique needs? Is it initially with the outreach and assessment and then through the rest of this engagement? This is a community of people. They’re not… You can’t cookie cutter them, we know that. But they are a community of people. How do you engage in that community in a way that respects who they are, where they come from, and helps move them forward that’s in their best interest, the way they want to move forward? It’s a deep question.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          No, and it’s a perfectly worded question. It really is. Because I think you just got to the heart of how LA Family Housing works. One of the unique things about our organization is that, while we work in partnership with a lot of different incredible organizations, we work along the whole continuum ourselves. Many of our partners only do outreach, but they do it really well, but they only do outreach. Some of our partners only do the housing navigation piece. Other partners only provide bridge or interim housing.

The fact that we do all of that is when we sit down and we talk with somebody, if we meet somebody out in the field, someone experiencing homelessness, someone who’s built a tree house and lived in it for five years in the Sepulveda Basin, a family who’s been living in their car outside of their kids’ school so the kids are not late going to school every day. Wherever we meet somebody, we know what the whole path into permanent housing looks like. And so we can talk about that whole end goal and work with them at their pace, in their way, to accomplish that end goal, because we’re working along the whole continuum.

You ask how do you do that and be attentive to individual needs? Maybe it goes back to what you said, stopping and saying hi to everybody as we’ve been walking around for the last 20 minutes. It’s about listening. It’s about seeing people, who they are and where they’re at. It’s about creating the physical space so that talking with them feels safe and allows them to be honest. Because we really need to start from a place of honesty if we’re going to figure out what are the best tools for you to end homelessness in your life.

John Bwarie:    And does the same person that might meet them on the street or that greets them as they come in through these doors, when you finally do open in a couple months, does that person stay with them through their journey and process? Or is there… What’s the mechanics of it? And I don’t know if that’s-

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          No, that’s right. I mean, there is kind of a warm hand-off that happens. And it’s a little bit different in each case. I could tell you what the ideal flow is, which is, most families come to us through a referral. Maybe LA Unified referred that, maybe they called 2-1-1, maybe we met them on the street. But usually there is a referral process for families. Individuals, we primarily begin that engagement because of our boots on the ground, because of our street outreach teams. That initial team that engages with individuals and with families, it doesn’t matter where that engagement begins.

We have a full engagement team. Once an assessment has been done and we identify what resources you’re eligible for, what’s your level of vulnerability, what would be the appropriate housing intervention for you based on this comprehensive assessment that the engagement team did? Post assessment, you would really be working with the housing navigator.

We have a whole other team of navigators, and their job is to define the right housing intervention for you, and then help navigate that path to move into the housing. For some people, that path is, you’ve got to do a lot of paperwork. Maybe for a veteran is, we have to advocate for your discharge status to be changed so that you’re eligible for a VASH voucher so that you could use that to move into that apartment because it’s near a job and community supports that you have, family, faith, et cetera. That’s the housing navigation team

Post placement into permanent housing is a third team, and those are our housing stabilizers. That’s the team that ensures you remain stable and successful in that housing once you’ve moved in. Say you got a job, full time, benefits, making $15 an hour. And then your employer, after two months, says, I’m really sorry, I got to cut you back to 38 hours. Well, you still have a full time job, you still have benefits, that’s fantastic. But at $15 an hour, you’re losing $30 a week, $120 a month. That could be the difference between paying rent, filling your car up with gas to get to your job. It could be the difference of groceries or rent. So our housing stabilizer needs to be able to know what’s going on with you, needs to be checking in with you regularly so when you lose $120 a month in income, how can we supplement that until you catch back up? Maybe we give you gas cards every week. Maybe we give you a grocery store gift card that was donated to us. That’s how we keep you stable and successful in your housing.

Those are three different teams.

John Bwarie:    That’s amazing.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          And it could be three different staff people, honestly. But it’s a warm hand-off of people coming from the same culture, from the same organization, with the same ethos that says, we’re going to meet you where you’re at.

John Bwarie:    And you’re dealing, though, with thousands of people a year. I mean, thousands, in one form or another. During that hand off, something doesn’t go right. So you’ve built this relationship… And that happens, right? With that many people, there’s bound to be one or two that either staff has made a mis-assessment, or there hasn’t been a piece of information disclosed. How do you correct that and still maintain the relationship?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          That’s such a great question. We’ve actually self-imposed reassessments of all of our participants post placement. Because for us, we need to know that the housing intervention was the right intervention. Just the fact that you stayed in your housing for six to 12 months and that’s what we’re required to record, doesn’t mean that you reduced your level of vulnerability to fall back into homelessness. And our stabilization team, of course, the primary goal is to keep you in your apartment. It’s far easier to stay housed than to rehouse somebody. But we need to know that we reduced your levels of vulnerability. Have you actually, now that you’re in permanent housing, been able to get to your mental health appointments on a weekly and a monthly basis? Because spiraling out of control there is going to create loss of your apartment. 10 other examples of the same thing.

So as we do those reassessments, we could see that someone’s income has gone down, but yet they haven’t changed their level of vulnerability. They’re still stable and strong. That’s incredible. That’s because the tools that we gave you, the resources that we were able to provide, wasn’t only about cash assistance or negotiating with the landlord to sign a lease. We gave you tools to stand up on your own. And obviously, there’s nothing stronger than that.

So how do we know whether an intervention didn’t work? We constantly stay connected. And we do very regular three, six, and nine month reassessments of your level of vulnerability. The same vulnerability assessment tool we used when we first engaged with you, whether you were still living outdoors or you were first referred to us, we use that same assessment tool so that we’re measuring apples to apples.

John Bwarie:    We’ve heard you talk about tremendous services, a thoughtful, proven approach, probably research based, and a number of the things you’re doing that we haven’t even talked about. But you’re in community, right? You’re in a world that people that aren’t your participants, that aren’t your donors, that aren’t your volunteers and not your staff, see the participants that you serve, or potential participants, in the community. They may have a perspective or a perception of them that may not be rooted in some facts and just sort of a generalization. We see this in a number of sectors and a number of areas in communities. And you’re going in as a developer. You’re going in and saying, we’re coming to your neighborhood and bringing these people to reduce their vulnerability, increase their capacity. We’re going to put them in your neighborhood because we have the expert staff to be able to cite and develop housing for them.

Let’s talk about the community that’s not affiliated. How do you deal with people who oppose the idea that you’re just giving people a handout? Or they might say, that’s fine and well, but not in my area. I don’t want you doing it over here in this… We call that NIMBY, not in my backyard. We see report after report of this happening across Los Angeles It’s an American phenomenon, right? It happens across the country. The NIMBYism, the NIMBY movement. And people prejudging a person based on things that they don’t know.

How does the institution, how do you as the leader of this institution, how do you deal with opposition, and sometimes, frankly, ignorance on the part of external communities that can be well-organized, vocal, and then fully engaged in their own community? How do you partner, address, engage those people and help them see what I think anyone listening to you talk can see, of the effort you’re making to help those that need your help?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          I think in many ways, the way we work with the communities in which we’re looking to develop new housing is no different than the way we work with our participants or the way we work with our staff or the way we work with our current supporters. And that is, meeting people where they’re at. Understanding what they care about, understanding what they fear, understanding what they’re excited about, and responding to that appropriately.

I think we might be a bit unique in the way we handle our community engagement process as we develop new real estate, in that we’ve sort of made a philosophical commitment never to open escrow on any site until we’ve met with the community. We meet with the community even if we don’t need anything from the community. We might not have any entitlements that would be going for discretionary approvals that would require us to attend neighborhood meetings. But yet we go there before we’ve ever opened escrow to say, hi, this is who we are, this is the work we do.

John Bwarie:    And what’s the result then?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          It’s worked well for us.

John Bwarie:    I mean, track record.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          It’s worked. Nothing has been opposed. We haven’t always been received with open arms and universal support, but there has never been a community group that has said, they didn’t listen to my concerns. I didn’t even know they were coming. That will never be said about LA Family Housing, because we are out there, upfront, from day one. We bring participants with us who share their experience.

You meet Emily, and she shares her story about the unexpected loss of her son, her divorce, her business collapsing, and you see how it triggered her mental health. How she stood on a freeway overpass and just thought it’d be easier if she died. And you see how she is flourishing and how she is strong and participating in her community again, because she found LA Family Housing. She checked herself in to a mental health hospital. She was there for six months, and we worked so closely in the mental and physical health community with discharge planners, that she was discharged to LA Family Housing and lived at our valley shelter for a number of months until she qualified and moved into our permanent supportive housing at Palo Verde.

You meet individuals and you meet families like that. When we go to our community meetings and we say… The community with its perceptions, with its concerns, walks away feeling differently because they heard from someone that looked like them. That experienced loss like they experienced loss, but maybe didn’t have the same support network to recover from that loss or recover from that crisis. I think the bottom line is when we listen. We’re not going to change everybody’s opinion, but we have to stay true to what we commit.

Here on Simpson Street, we’ve been a neighbor here for 35 years. We’ve been present here. The dynamics of the community we serve might be a lot in some communities. It might be a lot here. So what was our response? We listened to our neighbors across the street and in the surrounding community. We worked with them to advocate for more lighting on the street. We worked with our city council office, and we got cool little vests and the tools that we need, and we do monthly cleanups that our participants lead. Going up and down the streets for seven blocks around our bridge housing here at the campus in North Hollywood, and we do neighborhood cleanups. Our neighbors see our participants outside contributing to the benefit of the community we all share.

John Bwarie:    Wow, you just took away all my follow up questions. How do you overcome that opposition? So you basically… You pre-empt opposition by getting there before they have a chance to oppose. Listening, engaging, and being responsive. And meeting people where they are. And I think that’s really a key takeaway, is that both in the work you’re doing for your participants and the work you’re doing with communities that are around you, it’s being empathetic. It’s meeting people where they are and not trying to assume things about them. Because if you assume about them, they have every right to assume about you, and you’ve nipped it in the bud by not letting that happen.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          We’re having an interesting challenge with just a couple of our neighbors here around the campus, and so we have regular meetings with them, generally monthly. We sit down, and we’ve wanted to have the meetings inside the building here, and they refuse.

John Bwarie:    Really?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Which has been really interesting. And they said, we see it. We see that it’s beautiful. We know that you made an investment and you could have built this $50 million campus, both the north campus and the south campus, anywhere, and you chose to make that investment here. Thank you. It is beautiful. However, we don’t want the meeting to focus on how great you are. We want the meeting to focus on the challenges we’re experiencing. And so with all due respect, we would like to meet in this venue instead. Okay. I mean, that is fair. And sure, of course, I take people on site here, because I’m incredibly proud. But I also think it speaks to who we are and what we respect. But most importantly, I need to respect their concerns. And so meeting where they want to meet, literally, is how we do business.

John Bwarie:    Amazing. Stephanie, we are now in our lightning round. I’ve got a series of questions. If you just… First thing that comes to mind. And short answer, don’t think about it much. Just give us your answer. And if it’s really complicated, just say pass, and we can come back to it. But we’re going to start, are you ready to go?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Sure.

John Bwarie:    Okay. Here we go.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Make me nervous.

John Bwarie:    Who is a leader who has influenced you in your work?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          I would say in graduate school when I studied with Gilda Haas. She wasn’t working in homeless services, she wasn’t working in real estate development per se. But she was the most visionary person I knew and the most patient person I knew. And I don’t think those are qualities that often come together and I’ve tried to emulate that.

John Bwarie:    Cool. What American city has made the most admirable progress on homelessness?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Los Angeles.

John Bwarie:    Great. What’s your LA commuting tip?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          What’s my LA commuting tip? I am a rare Angeleno that was able to walk her daughter to school every morning and sit at my desk by 8:30 in the morning. And to be home for my three kids every night for dinner, even if I had to pick up and do work after dinner. But I have, fortunately, lived near my work, and that has been great.

John Bwarie:    What is the most common public misperception of people experiencing homelessness?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          That people choose that as a lifestyle. And I will say until the day I die, nobody chooses to live outdoors. They’re not ready yet and we have to be patient.

John Bwarie:    What advice would you give 25-year-old you?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Stay the course. You have a good vision for your life, and 25 years later, you’re still on course.

John Bwarie:    Cool. What is the best career decision you have ever made?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          The best career decision? No, I have a very clear one. The best career decision I ever made was to step outside of my comfort zone. I took a job that was not right for me and I knew it within two weeks, but I stuck to it. Not much longer… I mean, I stuck to it for the next year. And the amount that I grew professionally there was incredible.

John Bwarie:    And so far, what has been your proudest professional moment?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          You’re sitting in it.

John Bwarie:    Cool. Cool. Thank you, Stephanie, for joining us, sharing your insights about working in community with community with people, and listening to them. Thank you.

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer:          Thank you.

John Bwarie:    Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence. And for more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at stratiscope.com. At Stratiscope, we provide community intelligence services to businesses, non-profits, and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.