Less than a year ago, Helen and Bryan Lopez were living on the streets of Los Angeles' Venice Beach. By day, they probably looked like any other young 20-something couple enjoying an afternoon by the ocean. At night, they would wait until after dark to use the outdoor showers before going to sleep in their car.
"We didn't want people to see us shower," Helen says, "because we would take our shampoos, our sponges ... we didn't want people to notice that we were homeless."
Now they live in a sprawling four-bedroom, Mediterranean-style home just a couple of miles from where they were once homeless. But this isn't a rags-to-riches story. Their change of fortune was thanks to a tiny program run by a local nonprofit that places young homeless people with hosts willing to take them in for three to six months — with the goal of transitioning to more permanent housing.
In the Lopez's case, they were placed in the home of Marlene and Michael Rapkin, retired attorneys in their 60s.
"They're just giving people," Helen says of the Rapkins. "They're ... helping us succeed in life."
The program — called Host Home — is a new approach to helping LA's homeless population. And though other programs in the Los Angeles County have been met with fierce resistance from some neighbors who don't want shelters nearby, residents involved with this one are not only embracing homeless people in their neighborhood, but they're also opening their homes to them.
'Walk the Walk'
The Lopezes became homeless after they were both kicked out of their childhood homes because their parents didn't approve of their getting married so young.
"I had been kicked out of the house [before] by my parents, but ... at the end of the day, my mom would just hit me back on the phone like, 'come back home,' " Bryan says. This was his first time being "hardcore homeless," he says.
The couple lived out of their car for three months — a long time to be without shelter, to be sure, but not nearly as long as LA's chronically homeless have lived on the streets.
In September, they moved in with the Rapkins.
"It feels great to live in a room, to have a bed. I actually forgot how it felt to live in a bed after ... living in a car for three months sleeping on the seat," Bryan says.
Until recently, the Lopezes and the Rapkins inhabited different worlds. Bryan and Helen come from big families in South and Central LA. The Rapkins are empty nesters in one of the city's toniest neighborhoods. But they've discovered common ground, too. Marlene says she felt an instant connection to Helen because she got married at around the same age.
"Nowadays nobody does," she says with a laugh.
It's a unique relationship, one that's intimate and family-like while also being impersonal. The two couples keep their own schedules and don't overlap a lot day to day.
"I'm happy I have a couple, because if I would've had a single woman I would've felt more responsible to accompany her more," says Marlene. "But I know she has Bryan, so they have each other."
Around the time they moved in with the Rapkins, Bryan got a job handling luggage at Los Angeles International Airport. Helen, meanwhile, enrolled in a vocational program for coding and web development at the nonprofit St. Joseph's Center. She hopes to eventually go back to school and become a software engineer. Moving in with the Rapkins has helped them commit to work and school with new focus. Bryan, who sometimes pulls 18-hour shifts at the airport, says that when they were living out of the car, he used to worry about Helen whenever they were apart. That's not the case anymore.
They're also saving up for their own apartment.
For the Rapkins, becoming hosts was the culmination of years of work around homelessness. As a lawyer, Michael has represented homeless people in numerous pro bono cases. Marlene heard about the program because she volunteered at A Safe Place For Youth (SPY), the organization that runs it.
Participating in the program, Marlene says, was an "opportunity to walk the walk."
"The way you end homelessness is you get people off the streets," Michael says. "The solution is simple."
'Step Up and Dispel That Fear'
Host Home is taking a small bite out of a big problem.
About 53,000 people are homeless in LA County on any given night, according to the latest count earlier this year.
Driving around the region, you see evidence of the crisis everywhere. Tents line the sidewalks beneath freeway overpasses. People sleep on discarded mattresses, bus benches and park lawns. At rush hour, panhandlers weave between cars on busy streets, holding out cups to idling motorists.
SPY's Host Home Program has helped six homeless youth this year and costs about $75,000.
In addition to a place to live, participants — like the Lopezes — receive case management and help finding permanent housing, while hosts get a monthly stipend of up to $500. (Though nearly all the hosts — including the Rapkins — turned that down.)
Although the program's price tag pales in comparison to what Los Angeles is spending on other forms of homeless housing, like the $20 million allocated for 15 new shelters across the city, for example, it's still a significant investment for something with such minuscule impact.
Alison Hurst, executive director of SPY, acknowledges that the potential of Host Home is limited. Still, she says, the impact can't simply be measured in numbers. Part of the goal, she says, is to change the way people think about homelessness. It's trying to send the message that everyday citizens can directly engage in solutions, even if they don't go so far as to take someone into their homes.
"There's so much fear around the homeless community," Hurst says. "We really need to all step up and dispel that fear."
Host Home programs already exist in the U.K. and other parts of the U.S., including the Bay Area and in and around Minneapolis.
Experts say it's an exciting but largely untested model. "Homelessness is really complex and there need to be innovative solutions," says Jack Tsai, a psychologist for the Veterans Health Administration in Connecticut and associate professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine who works on issues related to homelessness. He called the Host Home concept "very promising" but says there isn't much research on its long-term outcomes. "The cons are, we don't know a lot. This hasn't been studied well," he says.
So far, SPY's Host Home pilot program has graduated four of its six enrollees into permanent housing. And for now, it's a small, temporary pilot, but the model could expand. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county joint powers agency, recently put out a request for proposals hoping to fund five organizations to create similar programs across the county. SPY applied to expand its existing one.
Even if Los Angeles officials expand it, it's likely to remain a tiny part of the solution when it comes to housing LA's homeless. Yet it's not the only initiative attempting to personally engage citizens in solving homelessness. Both the city and county of Los Angeles, for example, are testing programs to help people build back houses on their properties if they agree to rent the units to formerly homeless individuals. None of these solutions will be a magic bullet, but with so many people on the streets, to some degree everything feels like a drop in the bucket.