ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When you drive around LA, it's impossible to miss the problem of homelessness. LA County has about 53,000 homeless people. That's more than any other metropolitan area in the U.S. besides New York City.
ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: So you see there's a whole line of tents right there under that overpass...
SHAPIRO: That highway overpass, yeah.
SCOTT: ...Highway overpass. That's what you typically see around the city. I mean, every free...
SHAPIRO: That's reporter Anna Scott. She covers homelessness for member station KCRW.
Is somebody living in this van that we just passed?
SCOTT: My guess would be yes. That's also really typical to see.
SHAPIRO: Anna and I have been looking at one interesting way that LA is approaching this problem. Hi, Anna.
SHAPIRO: So this program is called Host Home. It's been tried in other cities, but LA has just completed a one-year pilot program. Explain how it works.
SCOTT: Yeah, it's almost like an exchange student program where you can host somebody in your home. In this case, the people coming into the home would be young homeless people between the ages of 18 and 25. And the hosts are volunteers who take them in for three to six months.
MARLENE RAPKIN: So they have a bathroom here and in the room.
SHAPIRO: You went to one of these arrangements where a young couple was living in an older couple's house. Tell us about them.
SCOTT: Yeah, so the younger couple - they had a kind of unusual story.
BRYAN LOPEZ: My name is Bryan, and I'm 23.
HELEN LOPEZ: My name's Helen Fullgar (ph). Well, I got married, so it's Lopez now. But...
SCOTT: Helen and Bryan Lopez - they're 22 and 23 years old. They got married, and their parents did not approve of them getting married so young. And that's what led to them being homeless.
B LOPEZ: My mom agreed to it, but my dad didn't, so I just got kicked out the house. I didn't really think he was going to do that to me. So he just kicked us out. And I was like, fine, I'll just take the car. And we ended up going to Santa Monica. So we started living there for, like, a cool three months.
SCOTT: Just showering at the public showers near the beach, going to Starbucks to charge their phones and get water. And eventually they got connected with this Host Home program.
H LOPEZ: It was a little shaky 'cause we were the first couple to ever be, like, on the list. But we're blessed to have had the Rapkins open their home to us.
SCOTT: So now they're living with an older empty-nester couple. Their names are Michael and Marlene Rapkin. They're both retired attorneys. And they have this big house.
MARLENE RAPKIN: So here's a family room that we also don't use (laughter).
SCOTT: Oh, wow.
MARLENE RAPKIN: And we told them they're welcome to use it, watch TV.
MICHAEL RAPKIN: The bathroom is there, but, like, the second floor is also open.
SCOTT: And they've both done a lot of volunteering over the years around homelessness, and they got involved in this because they wanted to do something more.
MARLENE RAPKIN: This was an opportunity to walk the walk.
SHAPIRO: We're hearing this tape from your visit to the house back in October. How has it been working out for them since then?
SCOTT: They say it's been working out really well.
B LOPEZ: Well, it feels great to live in a room, to have a bed. Living in a car for three months, sleeping on a chair, I actually forgot how it is to - how a bed felt. So to let us borrow their showers - it was amazing just to shower. Every time I'd come from work, I would just shower. You know, we're grateful for them opening their room, you know? So...
SCOTT: Is it ever awkward? Not to be (laughter) - make it uncomfortable, but I would imagine at first, you know...
H LOPEZ: Well, at first...
SCOTT: ...Living with strangers, it's...
H LOPEZ: ...I was just more nervous than awkward. Too many good things were happening throughout that time that we moved in. Like, he started working. And then it was time to move in. And I was just like, is it really happening? Like, especially in this neighborhood - I wouldn't have ever expected ever in my life to live somewhere around here. And they're part of our journey that helped us succeed in life.
SHAPIRO: One of the things I find so interesting about this program is that it seems like whenever you talk about homelessness, there's this NIMBY problem - not in my backyard. And this program asks people to not only allow homeless people in their neighborhood but really invite them into their home, in their spare bedroom.
SCOTT: Yeah, it's pretty much as personal as you can get in terms of finding a solution to homelessness. And that's the idea of the program. It's to put a human face on this enormous crisis.
SHAPIRO: There's an organization in Venice that's been running this program for the last year, and you and I went to meet the woman in charge.
ALISON HURST: My name's Alison Hurst. I'm the executive director of Safe Place for Youth.
SCOTT: This is an unassuming drop-in center right in the heart of Venice near the beach. Every week, hundreds of young people come here for showers, food, medical services.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, and for the last year, Safe Place for Youth has been the only organization in LA running a Host Home program. But now the LA Homeless Services Authority has put out a call for bids hoping to fund five organizations to create similar programs across the county. Hurst says the symbolism is as important as the mechanics.
HURST: I think it's an amazing way to really rehumanize who we're talking about here.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like you're saying the value of this program is as much in the symbolism and the culture change and the statement as it is in the number of people who are provided homes.
HURST: That is exactly what we believe it to be. For me, the value is in the actual conversations and what it kind of - what it's rustling up from the community.
SCOTT: In the last year, this pilot program placed six young people in host homes. In other cities where programs like this have existed for longer, the numbers are in the dozens.
SHAPIRO: On the day that we visited Safe Place for Youth, Alison Hurst told us that one of the young people had just moved into their own apartment after six months in a host home. So couple days later, we went to visit.
Are you Relly? Oh, my God, I'm Ari.
RELLY BROWN: Nice to meet you.
SHAPIRO: It's so nice to meet you.
SCOTT: Hey, I'm Anna. Nice to meet you.
A disproportionate number of young homeless people are queer. So is Relly Brown. They use plural pronouns. Relly moved here for a boyfriend who stole everything and left Relly with no place to go, which is how Relly ended up on the street.
SHAPIRO: Even though you've only been here for a few days, you've got a few key items up already. There's a Powerpuff Girls painting.
SHAPIRO: There is a vinyl copy of Beyonce's "Lemonade."
BROWN: That's priceless.
BROWN: That right there's a priceless treasure.
SHAPIRO: You're already making this house a home. There's a little Oscars statue.
BROWN: Yes. The room is not that big, but it's home to me. It's comforting. It's everything I wanted it to be. You can probably tell by my voice it's like it's hard to find words 'cause moments like this you have to soak in, and moments like this you don't know what to say.
SCOTT: Is there anything different, do you think, about the fact that you stayed at a host home than if you had been staying for those six months in a shelter, for example, or just somewhere with a roof over your head and using services but not in a person's house?
BROWN: It was just a personal connection I felt, that one person that cared. You know what I'm saying - 'cause you have people that say they care, but you know they really - they don't.
SHAPIRO: For a while, you were only living out of whatever you could carry with you from one place to another. And now you've got this place that is your own. What are you most excited about having here that you haven't had for a while?
SHAPIRO: I thought you were going to say, like, your own bed, but actually peace is a...
SHAPIRO: ...Much better answer (laughter).
BROWN: Peace, quiet, sanity, just a peace of mind. That's all I wanted back.
SCOTT: One of the ways Relly kept sane during those months of homelessness was by writing songs. And before we left, Relly sang for us one of the tunes they wrote when they were looking for a place to land.
BROWN: (Singing) I have seen so much in my lifetime. And I know it's rough, yeah, but it's going to be all right. I've been hiding...
SHAPIRO: That is Relly Brown in their new home in Los Angeles. Anna, is this program actually going to solve this problem of tens of thousands of homeless people in the Los Angeles area?
SCOTT: No, of course not. This one little program is not going to solve the problem. But it is one of several small efforts like this in LA to get regular citizens engaged in trying to make a dent in this problem. And the truth is when you have 53,000 homeless people, everything is really a drop in the bucket. But you have to fill that bucket somehow.
SHAPIRO: Anna Scott of member station KCRW, thanks.
SCOTT: You're welcome.
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