With the foot soldiers in the fight against homelessness

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When Larmar Avila is out on the streets meeting the people and trying to build trust, he makes sure to bring plenty of one thing to help break the ice: socks.

“They love socks. They love socks,” said Avila. “People lose them. They steal them. They get dirty and there’s no washing machine. So fresh socks is golden out here.”

Together, Avila and his partner Cheryl Hackett make up one of Los Angeles County’s 48 homeless engagement teams.

It’s their job to make contact with people living on the streets, especially the chronically homeless, and help them take the first steps to get into housing, mental health counseling and addiction treatment programs, with the ultimate goal to get them off the streets for good.

I recently met Avila and Hackett as they visited a homeless encampment in the South L.A. County community of Harbor City. There were about 30 people living in rows of tents between a busy boulevard and a wetlands area that the homeless called “The Pit.”

Larmar Avila and Cheryl Hackett talking to the homeless in a Harbor City encampment (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Just about every conversation Avila and Hackett had with people as they walked from one tent to another was about the challenges of finding longterm affordable shelter in the area given escalating rents and a shortage of housing.

Homeless engagement teams often sign people up for housing vouchers that are supposed to cover most of the rent. But even with the vouchers, its difficult to find landlords that will take them when the rental market is so lucrative.

“I already got my voucher, but I’m just waiting for the process of it, “said Tad Mathis, one of the people living in the encampment. 

Already waiting for several months, Mathis doesn’t know when he’ll be able to find housing with his voucher. This is a common story, according to Cheryl Hackett. She frequently tells people it might take months to find them a longterm place to live.

If they can’t find them an apartment or house, homeless engagement teams will try to place people in a temporary shelter.

But many people living on the street say they’d rather stay on the street instead of moving into a shelter with strict rules and regulations and tight quarters.

I want housing, I just don’t want to live in a shelter with a bunch of guys,” said Norm, a homeless person in Harbor City who didn’t want his last name used. 

“I’d rather be out there where I can breathe and be free. I’m not a criminal,  I’m just homeless.”

Avila, who worked as a persona trainer before becoming a homeless outreach worker, said he’s often struck by the sense of community in homeless encampments.

They are a family out here,” said Avila. “And they look out for each other because they’re all in the same boat, and they all get it. They all get the struggle.”

Cheryl Hackett said patience and persistence are key to doing homeless outreach work because the person who declines help might change his or her mind if things get bad enough on the streets.

“‘No’ today doesn’t always mean ‘no,” said Hackett. “You know, it means ‘maybe not today,’ but we still come back, and tomorrow may be a different day.”

Cheryl Hackett says she can spend months cultivating trust with homeless people who are suspicious about the idea of moving in to long-term housing or temporary shelters.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Looking ahead, more homeless engagement teams are heading to the streets.

In 2017, voters in Los Angeles County passed Measure H. It raised the sales tax in the county by a quarter of a cent to pay for more homeless services, including additional outreach teams. The county hopes to nearly the double of teams using Measure H funds.

At a recent job fair in downtown Los Angeles, L.A’s Homeless Services Authority interviewed candidates for outreach teams that will be formed in the coming months.

Applicants for homeless engagement teams being interviewed in the offices of the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Harold Boyd, who applied for a outreach team position, said he’d bring empathy and invaluable real world experience to the work. That’s because he was homeless and drug addicted for six years in the 1990s.

Now that he’s turned his life around, Boyd said he wants to be part of the fight against homelessness in L.A. County. “You know, we are the riches country in the world, and there is no legitimate reason for people to be living on the streets, said Boyd. “But if we roll up our sleeves and work a little, we can make a change.”

If he’s hired, Boyd could be out working with the homeless by the end of the year.