ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Los Angeles has more than 50,000 homeless people. City and county leaders working to fight this crisis say they are housing more people than ever before. Now we're going to take a close look at how they're doing that and whether these solutions can work long-term.
Anna Scott covers homelessness for member station KCRW. Hi, Anna.
ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Hi.
SHAPIRO: OK, in a way, you're here to bring us an update on a story that you and I collaborated on last December in Los Angeles. We reported together on a program that puts young people in volunteers' homes. And you and I met someone named Relly Brown who had just recently graduated from that program and moved into a one-room apartment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RELLY BROWN: The room is not that big, but it's home to me. It's comforting. It's everything I wanted it to be. You could probably tell by voice, 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.
SHAPIRO: Relly Brown uses the pronoun they. And Anna, you have brought us a piece to catch us up on what's happened to Brown and other homeless people like them.
SCOTT: Yeah, that's right.
SHAPIRO: Let's listen to it.
SCOTT: Relly Brown got that apartment through a program called Rapid Re-housing, which is being used to house thousands of homeless people every year. I went to check back in on them in that apartment which used to be a hotel room.
It's good to see you again.
BROWN: How are you?
SCOTT: And in many ways, it still looks like a hotel room - just four walls, a mattress on the floor and no kitchen.
BROWN: I called it a box (laughter). I was like, I'm living in a box.
SCOTT: This Rapid Re-housing program gives you a temporary voucher that usually covers the first few months of rent. Then - here's the catch - you work up to taking over the full rent yourself. In April, Brown had to pay $300, in May $600. And by this summer, Brown will be responsible for the full rent, $1,200 a month, for that tiny room. Brown's counting on a couple of part-time job interviews coming up.
BROWN: Hopefully I'll work both of them, and then I could just stack up. And when the time comes, I could just pay it without a problem, so...
SCOTT: If so, Brown would beat the odds. Only 1 in 5 people with Rapid Re-housing increase their incomes at all before the subsidy runs out according to the LA Homeless Services Authority. But officials there say they don't expect everyone to finish the program and take over their own housing costs. Sometimes Rapid Re-housing is just a quick way to get a roof over someone's head while figuring out a more appropriate living situation.
HEIDI MARSTON: The reality is that it's hard to assess somebody's true need when they're on the street.
SCOTT: Heidi Marston is in charge of programs for the Homeless Services Authority. According to her office, nearly 18,000 people have been placed in homes through Rapid Re-housing in the past three years, and about a third of them have moved onto other kinds of subsidized housing, like permanent low-income apartments.
MARSTON: So while this can be something that's kind of a pass-through to permanent housing, it could also be just the leg up that somebody needs.
SCOTT: Marston's office says only 7% of the people who have gone through Rapid Re-housing in the past few years have showed up at homeless shelters again. But some LA landlords paint a different picture, like David Bensoussan.
DAVID BENSOUSSAN: I'm a left-wing, pragmatic guy who wants to keep his business, make more money and house homeless people.
SCOTT: At one point, Bensoussan had more than two dozen Rapid Re-housing tenants. A typical story, he says, was a renter who arrived upbeat and optimistic but then fell into some kind of addiction.
BENSOUSSAN: Sure enough, his voucher runs out. And two months afterwards, he hasn't paid any rent.
SCOTT: The man left, and Bensoussan doesn't know where he went. And he says that's how it ended for most of his Rapid Re-housing tenants. New York City ran a similar Rapid Re-housing program between 2005 and 2011. It was credited with moving 33,000 families out of shelters. But according to one study, more than half eventually fell back into homelessness. Relly Brown is making plans to avoid that outcome. If they can't make the rent, they've talked to their social worker about moving into a group home.
BROWN: So they wasn't going to put me back on the streets, which I'm thankful for. They're not going to do that.
SCOTT: Because Brown's worst fear is becoming homeless again.
SHAPIRO: That's reporter Anna Scott of member station KCRW in Los Angeles.
Anna, It sounds like this Rapid Re-housing program has a mixed record. Even if it does succeed, is it the kind of solution that could be good long term for the tens of thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles?
SCOTT: Well, the program is only one of many tools. But people who study this say that the only real long-term fix is increasing LA's affordable housing stock. It's been estimated that LA County is half a million units short of what it needs in low-income housing.
SHAPIRO: Anna Scott of KCRW, thanks a lot.
SCOTT: You're welcome.
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