Interview: Local Social Work Professor on Whittier’s Unhoused

Interview: Local Social Work Professor on Whittier’s Unhoused

In February 2020, The Right, the Good, and the Happy series published an interview with Whittier College professor of social work Paula Sheridan, PhD, LCSW, on the subject of homelessness. The interview is reprinted here in its entirety with permission from the Center for Congregational Ethics, Fort Worth, TX:

Center for Congregational Ethics: Homelessness affects more persons in our culture than most of us might imagine. You are located in Whittier, CA. Who is homeless in your community?

Paula Sheridan: There is an increasing number of people without housing in my community. There’s no one reason for being without a home. If we ask ourselves, “How long can I live past my last paycheck?”, we may be more vulnerable than we know. The faces of homelessness are changing, though most people without housing are single and male. African-Americans and Latinx groups are over-represented.

Sub-populations include families with children, adolescents, veterans, college students, and people with physical and mental health challenges. This includes LGBTQ adolescents and young adults rejected by their families, churches, and communities. They are especially vulnerable to higher rates of human trafficking, assault, depression, and suicide.

CCE: What are the numbers of homeless, at-risk persons, and those in need of transitional housing?

PS: In 2019, the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) annual homeless count recorded 58,936 people as homeless in Los Angeles County, a 12% increase from the previous year. In the Whittier community and service area, the count was 5,095, a 12% increase from last year. In contrast, the 2018 HUD Annual Point-in-Time Count reported 552,830 homeless individuals, an increase of 0.3% from 2017-2018.

Some states report increases of people without housing, including California, New York, District of Columbia, Oregon, and Hawai’i. People residing in these states also pay a higher percentage of income to rent or mortgage costs than people living in other parts of the U.S. Veterans who are homeless declined in the most recent national statistics. One of many sources about homelessness and housing insecurity is the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

CCE: What are the reasons people experience homelessness?

PS: It’s easy to believe myths about the causes of being homeless which allow us to distance ourselves from solutions. Myths cloak and protect us from being honest about our connection to others. LAHSA data (2019) and the lessons I’ve learned from people residing in shelters dismantle these unhelpful falsehoods:

Myth: They are outsiders who come to our city for help and deplete our resources.

Truth: Two-thirds of people who are homeless in Los Angeles have resided in the area for more than a decade.

Myth: Drug addiction and mental illness are the root causes of homeless.

Truth: Economic challenges such as high rents and stagnant wages are more likely to cause homelessness. One-third of Los Angelenos spend more than 50 % of their wages on housing.

Myth: They just need to get a job.

Truth: Many people experiencing homelessness are working full-time and do not earn enough to afford housing. Twenty seven percent (27%) of homeless adults with children are working full or part-time. Unconditional affordable housing and living wages reduce the numbers of people without homes.

CFCE: You have been involved for several years with a group known as First Day in Whittier, CA which works with the homeless. How did your engagement happen?

PS: Whittier Area First Day began in 1989 as a dream of a retired architect and other community leaders who believed that we could offer people a viable path to affordable housing, heath, and healing. They persisted amid reasonable objections and built an alliance with our community. The First Day residents committed a part of their time to city service, volunteering to work in community events, building bridges with potential employers while sharing their many work skills that our city needed. It was an elegant reciprocal partnership.

My involvement began as a citizen during the negotiations to build the First Day facility and its opening. Then I saw the potential for mutual partnerships between college students and the First Day residents.

What could we learn from each other? In 2005, A faculty colleague and I paired our two classes in social work and Spanish. We asked the First Day residents if they wanted to build their own garden with us. We planned and planted the garden together, tilling soil side by side.

We’ve built herb and vegetable gardens together, captured stories of our lives and future plans by creating individual Life Books, and made documentaries about the talents of First Day residents and our partnerships. My faculty role will end with my retirement from Whittier College in spring 2020, but my commitment to housing advocacy will continue in other ways.

CFCE: First Day is part of a larger coalition, right, in Whittier? What are some of the other organizations who network with First Day? Are there congregations in the coalition, too?

PS: Whittier First Day partners with several organizations in the geographic service provider area to provide opportunities for people who live in this designated cluster of small cities. The continuum of care includes medical, behavioral health, housing, job training, transitional housing, and other resources. There is not enough shelter for people in need.

Congregations have a long-standing Cold Weather Shelter open between November and February that provides two hot meals and overnight housing for our unhoused neighbors. Congregations take turns opening their doors in educational or other church spaces for people to rest and recoup overnight during the winter months.

CFCE: Could we assume that work with those who work with the homeless, who are at-risk persons, or who are in need of transitional housing are on the receiving end of negative responses of others in the area? What are some of those responses? How do you and others who are engaged with the First Day coalition respond?

PS: There has been considerable tension since the landmark ruling of the Martin vs. City of Boise case (2018) which allows people to sleep in public places if there is not enough shelter. This effects nine western states including California. In December 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear or comment on the case leaving civic officials in a quandary. Our service area has approximately 400 beds for 5,000 people designated as homeless. Los Angeles county has 60,000 people without housing. Too many people, too few beds. And now case law supports sleeping in public spaces. Where can our neighbors sleep at night? And rebuild their lives during the day?

Our community discusses laws and policies that range from criminalizing people without homes to adding more shelters. It’s a lively debate involving citizens, homeless advocates, law enforcement, and elected officials. There is high emotion, but no clear plan. Our community has several conflicting viewpoints about people who need assistance and those who advocate and support them. I hear fear in the voices of those who want people to go away. I’ve also heard anger expressed towards congregational members who share meals and resources with people who are encamped in public places. We are still on this journey.

CFCE: What gives you the energy, the endurance, the sense of conscience to be involved with advocacy for people without homes?

PS: After more than 15 years of partnership at First Day, I am more aware of vulnerabilities people face in our world and in our scriptures.

The Nativity is the story of an expectant teenage mother who was separated from her people because of a legal decree. Father Greg Boyle entreats us to develop “a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” When this becomes our lens, we are more likely to see them as our neighbor, not our enemy.

I think my best teachers are the First Day residents and students in my classes. Many students find their relationship with our First Day partners to be eye-opening. It has the feel of an AA meeting. Everyone shoots straight. We know where we stand. If we aren’t respectful, we are asked to leave.

I may arrive weary but depart energized by the hope and hard work of our partners and the respect students develop when they discover kinship in unexpected places. I hope that students remember three lessons that I continue to learn with them: we aren’t there to save or rescue anyone, our partners have much to teach us, and we can use our vote to address unmet needs with informed compassion.

CFCE: The Center deeply appreciates your sense of social justice, social ministry, and civil engagement.

Paula Mangum Sheridan, PhD, LCSW, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Social Work Program at Whittier College in Whittier, CA. She is a member of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA.

Leave a Reply