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“Yes, in My Backyard!”: Inside Hollywood’s New Embrace of Homeless Neighbors

The all-volunteer SELAH (an acronym for the area it covers: Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village and Hollywood) is part of a new generation of advocates welcoming their unhoused neighbors at a time when homelessness in L.A. County has reached a record high.

Inside the Silverlake Community Church on Saturday, June 15, a group of about 20 volunteers with the 2-year-old nonprofit SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition is serving meals to about 35 homeless men and women. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? plays on a screen in the middle of the room. Two workers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority are sitting at a table, connecting homeless people to services and potential housing. In the church parking lot, there’s a mobile shower unit, provided by the nonprofit Shower of Hope, next to a table offering toiletries to “unhoused neighbors,” SELAH’s inclusive term for describing the homeless in their midst.

“Our whole ethos is neighbors helping neighbors. It’s, ‘We see you and want to help in any way we can,’ ” says Michael O’Shea, a writer on NBC’s Chicago Fire who is on the board of directors for the all-volunteer SELAH (an acronym for the area it covers: Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village and Hollywood). O’Shea has been talking with Claudia (not her real name), a woman who’s been living under a nearby overpass for the past eight years with her boyfriend. They’ve resisted going into shelters because they’d be separated into men’s and women’s facilities. Before becoming homeless, Claudia lived in a house near O’Shea. Since meeting through SELAH, he’s run into her going through his trash bins for redeemable bottles. He’s heard the couple might soon be able to get permanent affordable housing through the nonprofit services provider PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). “How’s it going with PATH?” he asks Claudia. “I’m hoping,” she says.

SELAH is hopeful, too: Its goal is to raise enough funds to put on its events with the homeless, called Saturday Suppers, every week going forward. It advocated for the city to start a homeless drop-in center in the neighborhood, but the process dragged on. “We started realizing, why wait for the city? Let’s do it ourselves,” says O’Shea. While the group is composed of a diverse range of people, there’s a significant cohort from the entertainment business. “Some of our organizing members from outside the industry joke that our name should be, ‘TV Writers Against Homelessness,’ ” says O’Shea.

The group is part of a new generation of advocates who are bucking the NIMBY stereotype and welcoming their unhoused neighbors at a time when homelessness in L.A. County has reached a record high, with 59,000 people lacking shelter, a 12 percent increase from last year. “This is our city’s number one issue,” says producer Gary Foster, whose 2009 film The Soloist told the story of a homeless musician and who serves on the board of the homelessness nonprofit The People Concern.

Other hyper-local organizations like SELAH include Ktown for All (which sprang up in 2018 amid angry protests there against a proposed shelter) and the Pacific Palisades Task Force on Homelessness (which has helped more than 100 homeless Palisadians find housing since 2016). “One of the keys to our success is all our local volunteers text each other all day, every day. If someone is in trouble somewhere, everybody knows about it instantly,” says casting director Nancy Klopper (Ray), a founding volunteer of the Palisades group: “It would be fantastic if other communities form organizations like we have here.”

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Other types of new nonprofits are meeting the needs of the homeless right where they are, including Safe Parking (which works with government entities and faith groups to find parking lots that will let people living in their vehicles park overnight) and The Laundry Truck LA (a free mobile service). Says Mel Tillekeratne, founder of the 2-year-old Shower of Hope, which offers free showers at 14 locations around the city each week: “We’re not going to get close to housing all these people for a while. So while they are on the street, let’s help people stay clean, which helps them stay healthy.” Some of these groups have banded together in a new coalition called Services Not Sweeps, which advocates against random street clearing and for sanitation services at encampments. The coalition notched a win June 19 when L.A. Sanitation announced that it would work to bring trash bins to encampments, schedule cleanup days and start a program to hire homeless to help with cleanup where they are living. The approach, explains O’Shea, is to “treat them like you would treat any other resident.”

Though the county housed 21,000 people in 2018, it simply couldn’t keep up with the number of people — 55,000 — who went newly homeless in the same period. While many people are homeless due to mental health and substance abuse issues, it’s estimated they account for 30 percent of the unhoused population. Most lose shelter because of a critical lack of housing affordability in the L.A. region: A UCLA and Public Counsel report out in June found that 500,000 eviction proceedings were filed in L.A. County between 2010 and 2018. “Our economy has boomed faster than we can build affordable housing,” says CAA agent Josh Lieberman, who volunteers every other week at the nonprofit Chrysalis (which helps the homeless and the formerly incarcerated gain job skills and work experience). He conducts practice job interviews for Chrysalis’ clients and has co-chaired its Butterfly Ball (along with Donna Langley, Jim Gianopulos, WME’s Richard Weitz, Stacey Sher, Evolution Media’s Rick Hess and Rebecca Gayheart), which raised $1.5 million on June 1. Adds Lieberman, “Unfortunately, when people see someone living on the street, they jump to these conclusions about who they are. They put people in a box.”

What Lieberman and many advocates know is that in addition to a resources gap, there’s also a compassion gap. Take a look any day on the neighborhood app Nextdoor. On it are posts from neighborhoods across L.A., by locals who are angry, scared, out of patience and short on sympathy for the encampments — and refuse — growing around the city. (Recent comments have called out the homeless as “visiting upon us all the misfortune they’ve brought upon themselves,” “lazy undeserving” and a “zombie outbreak.”)

Among those in Hollywood working to counter this stigmatization are producer John Wells (ER, Shameless) and his wife, Marilyn, who are focusing their family foundation exclusively on solving homelessness. Last year — under the United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Everyone In campaign to increase housing — Marilyn co-founded Stories From the Frontline, a series of talks where formerly homeless people relate their experiences. The first event drew 400 people to the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Hancock Park last year and, partnering with local homeless groups, they’ve since hosted them in Boyle Heights, Long Beach, North Hollywood, Pasadena and Venice. The idea is to engage volunteers and help build a vocal constituency that supports housing for the homeless. “We want to get each community involved — we need housing in all neighborhoods,” says Marilyn. “People who say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ the NIMBY thing, it’s hard for them to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and think, ‘What would I look like if I was on the street for a year?’ ”

Despite all the dire news, housing is getting built. The first development funded by the 2016 bond Measure HHH (which sets aside $1.2 billion to build supportive housing, meaning that it includes mental health and substance abuse services) opened in May in North Hollywood. Offering permanent shelter for 49 residents, plus transitional housing for an additional 250 people, the Irmas Family Campus was built by L.A. Family Housing, which counts Warner Bros. Pictures Group worldwide marketing president Blair Rich as a board member. (In April, she chaired its annual gala, raising $2 million.) PATH, which counts Kristen Bell and Mark Duplass among its supporters, has opened three interim housing sites in Hollywood and MacArthur Park since last fall. And The People Concern is working with a private developer to roll out FlyawayHomes, which opened its first development, built out of shipping containers, in late 2018 in South L.A. The modular-housing program is funded by private investors, who include Foster, with a targeted 5 percent rate of return. (John and Marilyn Wells are also planning to invest and are actively telling their friend circle about FlyawayHomes.) “We can build these for about $150,000 a person, while traditional housing costs $500,000 a unit. We want to build 400 of these projects in eight years, which would get 20,000 people off the streets,” says Foster, who has been hosting what he calls “living-room sessions” (including one at Sony Pictures Animation, with its president, Kristine Belson) to woo more industry investors.

“All of us have to stand up and not try to push it off into some other community,” says Foster. Leading just this sort of YIMBY (“yes, in my backyard”) charge are groups like SELAH. Says TV writer Hayes Davenport (NBC’s Great News), who volunteers with SELAH along with his wife, Captain Marvel writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet: “There’s a supportive housing project in Echo Park that is being proposed now, right on Sunset, that we are helping advocate for. We have the same goals as the people who want people swept off the street. We don’t want them to be on the street anymore, either. We want them to be housed — ideally, in this neighborhood.”

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A version of this story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.