Harm Reducer

His organization is determined to get homeless housed on Skid Row. Its powerful methods are incredibly effective, and sometimes controversial...

The Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT) isn't like other anti-homeless initiatives. Its founding principle is “Housing First with Harm Reduction,” a highly effective but sometimes controversial approach that offers homeless housing with few conditions. If approved for housing, residents are allowed to drink alcohol and use drugs inside their units without being thrown out.

As one of the most powerful anti-homeless initiatives in Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row, SRHT maintains 1,800 units in 26 buildings. Its largest achievement is a 102-unit modernist masterpiece designed by Michael Maltzan, the man behind Los Angeles landmarks such as the Hammer Museum, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the Playa Vista creative development and the new $500 million Sixth Street Bridge project. The Star comes complete with gorgeous views, an on-site health clinic, a running track and resident maintained urban gardens. It was built sustainably and efficiently out of pre-fabricated apartment units stacked on top of each other (see video below), and is certified LEED platinum. Breakers were lucky enough to tour The Star as part of Breakout: DTLA.

We spoke with the SRHT’s Corporate Relations and Events Manager Brad Robinson about the powerful project, and how he handles life on the front lines of the battle against homelessness. Robinson is passionate about his mission and believes strongly in the Harm Reduction model used at all 26 SRHT properties.

Tell us about The Star.

The Star is a pre-modular building. The units themselves were built in Idaho, driven to the location on flatbed trucks, and then assembled on site.  When you think of the benefit of pre-modular construction, you have to think of staging. How does one build a new building in a densely populated area without displacing the very population you are trying to serve? Pre-modules are a great answer to that. 

"Recovery cannot happen if you exist over a trap door..."

What is Skid Row Housing Trust? How did it start and how did you get involved in it?

Skid Row Housing Trust is a permanent supportive housing company that now houses over 1800 formerly homeless people. Our goal is to be able to have a doctor “prescribe” housing. This begins the process with our leasing office, which is located now at The Star. It may take 6 months, 8 months, to a year to get someone into a house. Why? Because we’re permanent housing. Our goal isn’t to be temporary or transitional, our goal is to have you permanently housed.

As to how I ended up working for the trust, I was approached by Tonja Boykin, the COO, and presented with the opportunity to reinvent the way the Trust engaged with the community and brought messaging to the public.  As a recent father, the idea to do real good and effect change in the community that I love was an opportunity that I will be forever grateful to Tonja for. It has been a transformative experience in my life.

How much is rent?

It’s 30% of your total annual income, but if you don’t have an income, then your rent is zero dollars.

But don’t some people take advantage of this system?

I would say that if you think offering someone shelter and getting them off the streets is taking advantage, then you are looking at this the wrong way.  If a man has been starved and then offered a buffet, do you then judge the size of his plate? Our goal is to get people off the streets and get them the medical attention they need. That is not taking advantage, it is simply the right thing to do. 

Do all these amenities place an incredible burden on the taxpayer?

The Economic Round Table does an annual survey and the most recent calculated that the taxpayers pay upwards of $100,000 per homeless person with their trips to the ER, jails, etcetera. By bringing in services and the medical facility like those found at the Star, it can save up to $40,000 per homeless person. So the question is how do you want your taxes spent? On jails and and ambulance rides? Or on beautiful buildings that connect and enhance the community?

That makes sense. I know that the “Mayor of Skid Row” General Jeff has been critical of SRHT because you allow your residents to do drugs and alcohol in the apartments, which he views as unhelpful. How do you respond to that sort of criticism?

As a sober member of the community I can say with some certainty that it has to be the person’s decision to get sober for there to be any real improvement.  They call it the first step. I believe recovery cannot happen if you exist over a trap door and are given ultimatums. “You can have this great home, but you have to stop using the only solution you have had for the last decade to have it.”  That seems insensitive to me. Who am I to say that to another human being? It is about housing first, and then building a community around them. It is a program of attraction rather than attrition.

"The goal for all of us, I think, is to look at what is right in the picture and make decisions from that perspective, not the other way around."

What are some examples of great SRHT success stories?

What and how do you measure success, especially in this community?  If they are housed, is that not a success?  The idea of benchmarks and expectations can be dangerous thing that sets up residents to fail.  Some come in so sick that the idea of rejoining the workforce is no longer an option, but they have medical care and are no longer on the streets.  Is that less of a success as someone who gets a great job at The Giving Keys or through Chrysalis?  The goal for all of us, I think, is to look at what is right in the picture and make decisions from that perspective, not the other way around. We have done that.  Looking and acting from a solution-based perspective is a much more difficult task than pointing out the obvious problems.  There is a solution in Skid Row and it is happening every day if you choose to seek it out.

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