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NLP Tour of the Union Rescue Mission and Talk with Dr. Raphael Sonenshein of the Pat Brown Institute

Maybe we can start again,
in the new rich land
–in California,
where the fruit grows.
We’ll start over.
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Since 1891, The Union Rescue Mission (URM), a private Christian homeless shelter, has brought hope and aid to individuals and families in Los Angeles experiencing homelessness.  I recently joined my New Leaders Project (NLP) cohort to visit the URM’s 225,000-square-foot facility in Skid Row for a tour with Mr. Mick Silvers, Volunteer Coordinator. After the tour, we convened for a talk with Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute, moderated by Rabbi Noah Farkas, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Commission Chair and NLP Advisor. In this first monthly session together, our NLP cohort focused on civic engagement and political leadership around the Los Angeles homeless crisis. The setting and evening’s discussion were apposite to understanding the contributing factors to the surging numbers of affected individuals (+75% since 2010) and discussing measures to address our crisis.

The URM tour began on floor one of five of the expansive facility that requires $54,000 daily to operate. People lined long hallways, waiting to be assigned a location to sleep, while staff members and volunteers hastily performed evening preparations. The first floor is the hub for emergency services where intake, counseling, showers, recreation rooms, the clothing room, and the dining room are located. The URM shelters 1,300 residents and offers 2,500 meals every day. Each night, staff ensure a place for every woman and child who needs a bed.

The remainder of the Downtown Los Angeles facility and a second location for women and families in Sylmar are dedicated to the URM’s long-term programs for residents committed to rehabilitation. Participants in the one-year Christian Life Discipleship Program (CLDP) for men reside on the third floor where they have access to a yellow and purple gymnasium (donated by the Lakers). In a blue and white learning center (donated by the Dodgers), CLDP participants receive educational instruction and job training. Our tour culminated on the quiet rooftop with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles. In this serene setting, Mr. Silvers’ closing message was on the importance of the URM’s holistic approach — physical, emotional, spiritual, and vocational — to break the cycle of homelessness. When asked what differentiated URM from other shelters, Mr. Silvers replied that the integration of faith has helped residents regain an understanding of self-worth and is a lasting source of inspiration to improve their lives.

Next, we congregated in the URM’s administrative offices where Dr. Sonenshein offered political and historical context to our homeless crisis that began in the 1980s. With the Los Angeles County homeless count reaching 57,794 in 2017, residents’ recent decision to tax themselves $4.6 billion to build 10,000 housing units and increase services shows the power of the Los Angeles civic mechanism to effect change. Dr. Sonenshein also impressed upon our cohort that this change is the Los Angeles legacy: a diverse and passionate government coordinated with a diverse and passionate constituency to improve the city and county. Our cohort looked to the example of Mayor Tom Bradley, the grandson of a slave and son of poor Texas sharecroppers, who worked with Jewish and Latino leadership to enjoy five formative terms as Mayor. In Mayor Bradley’s final term, we saw the passing of Charter Amendment F that catalyzed dramatic reform of the Los Angeles Police Department after the 1992 riots. This example is testament to social improvement in Los Angeles. We have experienced transformation before, so we can — and must — find it in our hearts to do it again.

The last segment of our evening focused on how we should solve our homeless crisis by addressing our housing shortage and making effective use of funds for services. Measure HHH and other efforts seem to be slow to start with announcements only recently on the use of motels, shelter expansions, and hygiene initiatives. To complicate matters, more homeless families require housing than ever before in a city with a larger inventory of single-room options. We also discussed the application of data from LAHSA’s annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in which several cohort members and I participated this past January. Data from this initiative is integral to effective policy making and budgeting. How many people are affected? Demographics? Where are they exactly? Sheltered or unsheltered?

An inky night had fallen over Los Angeles during our cohort’s time at the URM. We said our goodbyes and drove out on to San Pedro Street that was illuminated only by the red and white lights of cars and scant lampposts. I felt encouraged by the knowledge I had gained and that our cohort, a group of talented and civically minded young people, could apply this information to our work in real estate, law, healthcare, technology, government, and non-profits.  Since our visit, my thoughts have turned often to accountability and preparedness in leadership, themes that I look forward to exploring during the NLP program. With a homeless population the size of Arcadia, perhaps we not only need the management and resources of government but also strict and quantifiable metrics to track progress. If history shows us Los Angeles can change its heart, let us be equipped to answer to those who are ready to start over.

Remmie Maden is President of Darnov Family Limited Partnership, where she manages the investment activities and operations for its real estate and securities portfolio. Remmie is a current participant in the Rautenberg New Leaders Project (NLP) at Jewish Federation Los Angeles. For over 25 years, The Rautenberg New Leaders Project (NLP) has provided unique opportunities and training to elevate the next class of outstanding Jewish civic leaders in Los Angeles. With a commitment to the Jewish tradition of social responsibility, NLP empowers participants to hone their leadership skills and gain a deep understanding of the diverse fabric of Los Angeles, while working with elected, civic, and community leaders to address some of the most critical challenges facing our city. To learn more about NLP, visit www.yaJewishla.org/NLP or email NLP@JewishLA.org.

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