Opinion: Investing in temporary shelters helps transition people off the streets

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Homelessness in Los Angeles has become a crisis on a once-unimaginable scale. The fact that 66,000 people are currently homeless in Los Angeles County is heartbreaking, as it should be.

It’s a crisis that demands an array of solutions working together. That’s as true in L.A. as it is in the Pacific Northwest, where my company, Pallet, is based. People aren’t the same; their experiences aren’t the same. Why would a singular solution succeed for all?

An effective approach must involve consistent services, access to living wage jobs with health benefits, opportunities for wealth generation and meaningful integration with the surrounding community.

And of course, we need exponentially more housing and shelter of all kinds, because the need is too great and too immediate to rely on a single approach even for this one piece of the challenge.

Permanent housing is the common goal for people with lived experience, advocates, service providers, volunteers, CEOs, faith leaders, elected officials. You can’t be frustrated by seeing neighbors in need and not want them to have safe, stable, healthy permanent housing.

But we’re in crisis and we need to act like it. Until we get to the place where we have affordable housing for everyone experiencing homelessness there have to be additional routes for shelter, including temporary shelter.

I know well why permanent housing is difficult to achieve quickly in Los Angeles. I’m also a general contractor, and we have similar problems with space and high living costs in Seattle. In two decades of building, I’ve never once had land, permits and zoning line up with the snap of a finger.

Building permanent housing is expensive and takes time. Experience and common sense show that even with public support, the county can’t build 66,000 units overnight, or in a month, or in a year. Meanwhile, tonight, and next month, and this year, people on the streets are dying, getting sick or sicker, and slipping farther from finding a permanent, stable place to live.

Operated in partnership with service providers, temporary shelter can help speed the transition to stability.

In communities all along the West Coast — including North Hollywood and Riverside — government and nonprofit partners have erected villages of Pallet’s transitional shelters in conjunction with local service providers who provide wraparound case management for residents. Shelters accommodate individuals or couples, cost $5,000 per unit, and can each be erected in 30 minutes. They offer secure, dignified, clean shelter—reflecting the fact that they were designed with input from people with lived experience in homelessness. The vast majority of sites, including North Hollywood, also provide meals and help residents make the transition to permanent housing.

Tacoma, Washington created a Pallet village very much like the North Hollywood site where residents had consistent access to case managers and services. Of 450 people who spent time there, 400 were connected with long-term living arrangements.

Imagine you’re out on the street and come across a person with a gaping wound. You know the City has a hospital under construction a few blocks away. Would you tell the bleeder he has to wait until it’s built? Of course not. You’d pack that wound with whatever you have. You make sure he doesn’t die tonight, and then get him to recovery and stability.

Make no mistake, permanent housing is Pallet’s goal and the goal of every city and nonprofit partner we’ve worked with across the county. No advocate for temporary shelter wants it to be anything but temporary.

But if we insist that the only shelter solution is permanent housing, are we then OK with people continuing to live on the streets, in parks, in tents, until that housing is complete? Are we OK with folks in the elements, unsafe, in a pandemic—tonight, and next month and next year? I don’t know anyone in any town who thinks leaving people to wait is OK.

Homelessess is a nuanced and complex challenge, not just here, but all the way up to the Canadian border, and across the U.S. Those complexities demand we bring all we have to bear to help our neighbors get to where they need to be.

Amy King is CEO of Pallet, which makes temporary shelters used across the country that are designed and built by people with lived experience in homelessness.