Chapter 2: The Hotline

In the previous episode of this series, we spent some time with Tulicia Lee – a mom who was drifting between living in her car and sometimes staying with friends or family. In that story, when Tulicia finally started trying to get some help getting into housing or shelter, she began by calling 211. 

     211 Operator: Thank you so much for holding, how can I assist you today?

     Tulicia: Yes. Me and my eleven-year-old son is homeless.

     211 Operator: Ok.

I heard a lot about 211 doing this reporting. Not just from Tulicia, who called a bunch of times, but from everyone. From homeless people and service providers and advocates. It seemed like 211 was almost always the starting place for people who were looking for help. But mostly, when people talked about calling, they were frustrated. They’d say, I called but it didn’t work, or I called but I didn’t get anything. That’s how Tulicia felt. In her mind, 211 and “the system” were the same thing, and they hadn’t come through for her. 

So what was 211’s role in the system that helps people out of homelessness? And why did it seem like a dead-end for so many people? 

     211 Staff: Hi, good morning. 

     Katie: Hi I’m Katie Mingle. I’m a reporter that’s here, to… 

     211 Staff: Oh, that’s right – Katie. How are you doing, Katie? 

     Katie: Good, how are y’all?

At the beginning of March, right before everything shut down for the pandemic, I paid a visit to the 211 call center. I found answers to those questions, but I also found a whole fascinating world. Where the boundaries that separate caller and operator are blurrier than I imagined. 

This is According to Need, Chapter 2.

In Alameda county, 211 is run by a non-profit called Eden I&R and is located in the city of Hayward, southeast of Oakland. The main call center room is about the size of an elementary school classroom. It has brown carpet, fluorescent lighting, and non-profit energy. 

     Katie: Thanks for letting me sit in on your work today, I really appreciate it.

There’s a little coffee station, and a mini-fridge, and seven operators at desks, all wearing headsets. As the day goes on there will be moments when they are all talking at once.

[INDISTINCT OFFICE CHATTER]

     Hada: You need to call them between… You need to call them between 7, uh (inaudible)…7pm. Monday to Friday.

Not all of the people who call 211 are homeless but most of them are low income.

     Rashana: It could be just having a crisis going on. You know, the ends are not meeting for this month. The ends are not going to meet for the next few months. Or someone’s had an injury on the job.

That’s an operator named Rashana Robinson. And she says people call 211 looking for help paying their electric bill and help paying rent. Help doing all kinds of things that money can solve, if you’ve got it. 

     Rashana: Alameda County 211, how can I help you?

Just a note here – any callers you hear in this episode have given us their explicit permission to play their call, although in some cases we’ve taken out their names.

     Caller: I would like to know, do y’all know anybody that give a washing machine? I’m 93 years old…

One 93-year-old woman who called while I was there said last time she walked to the laundromat she nearly fainted from exhaustion. She calls Rashana “baby” and sometimes ‘sir,’ which Rashana is completely unfazed by.

     Rashana: Um, a washer – hold on one moment. 

     Caller: Ok, baby.

     Rashana: Ok. One moment.

     Caller: OK.. Thank you, sir! 

     Rashana: Oh, you’re welcome.

Rashana couldn’t find any organizations that looked like they helped people get appliances, but she gave this woman some phone numbers to try just in case.

The vast web of government services and nonprofits can be hard to navigate – especially for people who may not have the internet at home. 211 operators are trying to point callers towards resources that might benefit them which is why they’re officially called “Phone Resource Specialists,” but with their blessing, I’m going to stick with the less-jargony term “operator.”

     Katie: Can I just, like, record a little bit while you do the shelter calls?

     Hada: Sure.

Early in the day, Hada Gonzalez, one of the operators, starts calling shelters in Alameda county to see if they have space available.  

     Hada: Good morning. My name is Hada. I’m calling from Alameda County 211. Just checking on shelter space. OK. Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

     Katie: What’d they say? 

     Hada: They don’t have anything available. 

Hada has been an operator at 211 for 7 years, and she’s done these calls so many times that the words come out quick and tonal. Almost divorced from meaning.

     Hada: Good morning. My name is Hada, I’m calling from Alameda County 211, just checking on shelter space. OK. Thank you. Bye-bye.

     Katie: What’d they say? 

     Hada: Nothing. 

A lot of people who call 211 are looking for shelter, and if there are spaces available, the operators can help reserve them a bed. But keeping track of an inventory of shelter beds is more challenging than you might imagine. The number of open beds is always in flux. There are shelters that have 80 beds in the winter and 60 in the summer, and beds that just suddenly pop up in some random church basement. 

There are separate shelters reserved for victims of domestic violence. There are shelters that take moms with their kids if the kids are under 10 but not over 10. There are currently no shelters in the county that accept fathers with their kids, but there might be one opening soon. 

Hada calls a few more shelters with the same results. Nothing. No space available. 

[PHONE DIALING]

So far, today all they have to offer callers is one spot for a mother and two children.

     Rashana: It’s hard. It’s frustrating.

Rashana told me she got a call recently from a mother who needed shelter for that night, and she had nothing to give her.

     Rashana: And I was just on the phone with them, yeah I can hear her frustration. She’s like, ‘Huh? What do I gotta do? It’s nothing. It’s nowhere.’ She’s like, ‘So me and my child literally about to be on the streets tonight.’ I wanted to go buy her a hotel room. I was on the phone with her for thirty-three minutes and she was… I know she was staying on the phone with me to think I was going to give her a light of hope. And I was hopeless to her.

Already I was starting to understand why people were always saying, ‘I called 211 and I didn’t get anything.’  They weren’t getting anything because there was nothing to give. 

     Gurpreet: Thank you for calling Alameda county 211, how can I help you?

Homeless callers who want help with something other than shelter, like housing, for example, will have to get into the county’s “Coordinated Entry System”. And this – this was the same system Tulicia had entered. 211, it turns out, is sort of like a doorman for this system, opening the door for some people to enter, but not for others.

     Gurpreet: OK, and you’re looking for housing? OK.

Around 10am, I get to see one of these calls. An operator named Gurpreet Minhas gets a call from a 24-year-old mother who wants help with housing. 

     Gurpreet: First and last name?

To get that help, she’ll need to go into the Coordinated Entry System. But whether she makes it in at all depends essentially on how she answers one question. 

     Gurpreet: And where did you guys sleep or stay last night? 

Gurpreet is screening this caller to determine if she meets the definition of “literal homelessness,” according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and by extension, Alameda County. That’s the actual term they use, literal homelessness. You are literally homeless if last night, you slept in a shelter or in a place not meant for human habitation, like in a tent or a car or a broken-down RV. 

If this is the case, then you get the rubber stamp of literal homelessness. And the operators can pass you along to do a longer interview in which you’ll be asked a bunch more questions about your particular situation, and then entered into the system.

But here’s the kind of maddening thing. Say you stay in the car for three months and then one day you sleep at a friend’s house but that’s the day you happen to call 211. In that case, you are not literally homeless according to their definition. And if you’re not literally homeless, you can’t get into the system at all. Which means you can’t get help with housing. 

And this caller that Gurpreet is talking to – she seems to realize this. We don’t have permission from her to play the recording, so I’ll paraphrase what’s happening on her end. In response to Gurpreet’s question about where she slept last night, the caller says:  

Someone told me that I should tell you I’ve been sleeping in my car.

     Gurpreet: It’s not what somebody told you. It’s just where did you sleep last night? 

To this the caller says, well my kids don’t sleep in the car, but I do.

     Gurpreet: So last night, where did you sleep? Did you sleep in the car? Did you sleep on the street? Did you sleep in someone’s home? Where did you sleep?

I’m couch surfing she says but when there’s no room, I go to my car.

     Gurpreet: OK, so question again. Where were you last night? Where did you sleep last night? 

In my car, in my car!

     Gurpreet: OK. How long have you been sleeping in your car? 

Now the caller sighs. Finally, she says: I feel like you guys want a straightforward answer but I can’t give you one.

     Gurpreet: It’s pretty simple questions, ma’am.

This caller’s situation is complicated and in flux but Gurpreet needs to check a box. 

     Gurpreet: Give me one second. I’m gonna put you on hold and I’ll see if I can get them on the other line, OK? 

Gurpreet does forward her on even if it feels unclear to her whether the woman fulfills the criteria or not. The longer interview might reveal that she doesn’t meet the definition of literal homelessness after all. 

     Gurpreet: She wants to say she’s literally homeless, but I think she’s actually been staying at a friend’s house or she’s gonna end up saying that. And then what they’re trying to help with this program is individuals who don’t have any other resources. 

     Katie: I mean, it seems like what… part of what she was getting hung up on is that the questions sort of didn’t account for nuance. 

     Gurpreet: Mm-hmm. And I understand we need to be more, you know, more patient. But sometimes it’s just so difficult because there’s just like constantly attacking you and you’re just asking them simple questions. But it’s just so… it’s like a struggle.

When Tulicia Lee called 211 in the last episode, she could truthfully say she was sleeping in her car at the time, which meant she was ultimately allowed to enter the system, but hers was a similarly in-flux situation. She was often drifting between sleeping in the car and sleeping on someone’s floor or couch. Staying with other people like that, in a temporary, unstable way is often referred to as being ‘doubled up.’    

The Department of Education reported that there were about 220,000 students in California who were living doubled up in 2018. That’s 220,000 kids plus their parents or guardians that HUD may not be counting as homeless, who do not in fact have homes. And when those people call 211, they’re told they’re not literally homeless.

     Rashana: People really get frustrated when you tell them they’re not literally homeless. And they’re like, ‘I am homeless, what do you mean? I’m sleeping on the effing couch. I’m sleeping in my effing car. And I just got let in last night.’

But even when people do make it into the Coordinated Entry System, they don’t always get help. I mean, Tulicia had gotten into the system and she hadn’t gotten anything. Rashana seemed unclear on what exactly happens to people after they get in.

     Rashana: So I tell them it’s case by case.

     Katie: And so, like… they basically end up on a list. Is that your… is that your understanding? 

     Rashana: Basically. Yeah.

Rashana doesn’t know what happens to people after they get on the list, but what she does know is that they don’t always get housing. And that’s because those same people end up calling 211 again. 

     Rashana: And they’re like, I already got that. I’m already on that list. And people feel like they’re getting sent in this circle. 

There aren’t many parts of a bureaucracy that you can actually talk to, but you can always talk to someone at 211, 24 hours a day – which means the operators become the target of a lot of frustration.

     Rashana: Yeah. Yell, cuss you out. Yeah. We’re punching bags, all of us have been.

When people call 211, they’re often already having a really hard day. They might be in the midst of a crisis or a moment of true desperation. And even though callers have to give information like their name and phone number, there’s also a certain kind of anonymity. It’s fine if the operator hears you in your most vulnerable moment because your name doesn’t mean anything to them. You’re just two voices in the dark. 

Except for sometimes, all of a sudden, you aren’t. 

     Rashana: Good morning. Thank you for calling Alameda County 211, how can I help you?

     Caller: I’m homeless in Alameda County with a 2-year-old son.

Not the day I was there, but earlier this year, when Rashana was still pretty new on the job, she answered a call from someone who sounded familiar. The caller said she and her son were homeless and looking for help.

     Caller: Even like a shelter that provides some type of like housing afterward, something like that. I just need some resources. But I’m willing to move anywhere that I can get help.

Rashana starts asking her usual questions: Have you called 211 before? What’s your phone number? What’s your name?

     Caller: So my first name is spelled [beep] and my last name is [beep].

Now Rashana knows why the voice sounds familiar, and you can hear her take it in…. the person she was talking to was her cousin. The two hadn’t seen each other in a long time and her cousin didn’t seem to realize she was talking to Rashana.

     Rashana: OK. Uh… one moment. 

[PHONE BEEPS ON HOLD]

She puts her cousin on hold and turns to her coworkers. ‘Oh my God,’ she tells them, ‘this is my cousin.’ When she gets back on the call she seems not to know what to say at all, like she’s lost the script completely.

     Rashana: OK. Umm. OK. So let me, um…

Finally, she recovers a bit and makes her way through her screening questions – trying to determine if her cousin meets the definition of literal homelessness. Where did you sleep last night, etc?

     Rashana: And do you have any friends or family could stay with?

     Cousin: No. 

This is the point Rashana wanted to tell her cousin it was her, but she can’t figure out how to say it. It’s now 9 minutes into the call, and she’s finished with the screening interview.

     Rashana: OK, so… you have been determined to be literally homeless. 

     Cousin: Sorry?

     Rashana: By Alameda County guidelines, you have been determined to be literally homeless. 

Rashana tells her cousin there’s one space available in a shelter in Oakland that she could go to right away. And she can also go and do an assessment – get into the system – which might open up other resources.

     Rashana: And that’s your first potential steps to getting housed. 

     Cousin: OK. So you’ll basically transfer me so I can try taking the first steps to possibly getting housed in maybe Oakland, or…

     Rashana: Yeah. Well, you’ll talk to… Well, you’ll… it’s… nothing’s immediate. It’s gonna take a minute. 

     Cousin: OK. So, does the shelter… How long can I stay in the shelter for? 

     Rashana: It just depends. Um, it just depends. You could either, um… this is Tiny. 

Tiny is Rashana’s nickname.

     Cousin: Are you serious? 

     Rashana: This is why I sound so discombobulated right now. You’re messing me right now. Ooh. Yeah. I’m dead serious. 

     Cousin: That’s crazy. 

     Rashana: I feel so bad. This is not supposed to be happening to y’all, but um… 

Rashana tells her cousin that while she waits to get something through Coordinated Entry, she should also call the shelter in Oakland that has available space.

     Cousin: So I guess I’ll take the number to the one in Oakland, and then… [CHOKES UP]

     Rashana: All right. 

     Cousin: Hi, Tiny. [LAUGHS]

     Rashana: I know. Man.

     Cousin: It’s been hard.. like…

     Rashana: Man. [CHOKES UP] I know. I know. I was talking about you guys the other day.

For the next few minutes the two cousins catch up a little – both alluding in vague ways to difficult and complicated family history.

     Rashana: Well, it’ll get better for you. It definitely… You know, you’re seeming still to be a go-getter and this is the way to do it, I mean…

At the end of the call, Rashana transfers her cousin to the place where she can go to do the longer interview to get in the Coordinated Entry System.

     Rashana: I’m going to connect you. I got you connected. OK? 

     Cousin: OK. Did you take my number down?

     Rashana: Yeah, I took your number down. I’m going to text you mine, OK?

     Cousin: OK. 

     Rashana: OK. I love you. 

     Cousin: I love you, too. 

     Rashana: All right. 

[PHONE HANGS UP]

When I talked to Rashana about that call, I wanted to ask her if she had thought about offering her cousin a place to stay and I was struggling with how to do it in a way that didn’t sound judgmental. But then, she brought it up on her own.

     Rashana: I didn’t really want to fully… at that point, extend my hand as in a place to stay because I didn’t feel like I was in the position to do that. 

Rashana said she was relieved that her cousin hadn’t asked to stay.

     Rashana: I just didn’t want to be faced with that because, in my heart, I wouldn’t have had the heart to be like, no, you can’t come here. 

Rashana had been in this situation before, not with this cousin but with other people, and she knew: once you invite someone in, you have to be willing to let them stay until they find another situation. And she knew better than anyone how long that can take in the Bay Area. 

When Rashana took that call, it was also back when she first started at 211. Back when she still believed there was a good chance that the Coordinated Entry System could help people like her cousin. These days, she understands better that a lot of people who go inot that system don’t end up getting anything. And that’s what Rashana’s cousin told me happened to her. She and her son stayed in hotels for a while over the summer, but she recently managed to get them back into a place of their own. 

Rashana isn’t the only operator at 211 with second or even first-hand experience with homelessness. One operator, named Gwen, told me she had been homeless herself for about 5 years, not that long ago. She slept in cars and hotels when she could. Another – Michelle – told me she thinks her mother could become homeless soon.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all the operators who told me they’d had some kind of experience with homelessness were Black. When rents began to really spike, low-income African Americans who were already putting roughly half of their paycheck toward rent were extremely susceptible to becoming homeless, and many did. In Oakland, African Americans currently make up 70% of the homeless population and only 24% of the general population. 

     Hada: How many people?

     Gurpreet: In the cruise?

     Lars Eric: 3,554 countries…

     Gurpreet: No, for the ship…

     Lars Eric: The cruise ship is about 3,500 people, give or take.

     Gurpreet: Wow, there were other cruise ships?

     Lars Eric: Those ships are huge…

In the afternoon, Lars Eric Holm, the disaster preparedness coordinator at 211, comes up to check in with the operators. It was March 10th, and the day before I was in the call center, the Grand Princess cruise ship had docked in Oakland to carefully unload several passengers who were sick with COVID-19. Lars Eric had just sent around a memo with links and information for callers who might have questions about the virus.

     Lars Eric: This is the memo that I just got from Alameda County Public Health.

In a couple weeks the 211 operators would have to field calls not only about homelessness and poverty but about the virus and the associated shutdown. In a month there would be a major coronavirus outbreak in a homeless shelter in the Bay Area. And some shelters would start operating at a reduced capacity. And soon, when people talked about ‘the crisis’ they wouldn’t be talking about homelessness or housing anymore. They’d be talking about the pandemic. But at that moment, we didn’t really get it yet.

     Lars Eric: I realize this is a lot. 

     Gurpreet: It is. That’s why I opened it and then closed it. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC]

     Hada: Wow. Five male beds? First time.

You probably remember that earlier, Hada Gonzalez had not been able to find more than one space for a mother and child in a shelter. But she’s just gotten an update from a shelter in Oakland.

     Katie: Wait, can you say what happened? 

     Hada: We have five male beds. 

     Katie: And that’s kind of, like, rare to have that many? 

     Hada: Yeah. We only have like… Some days nothing. Some days we have one or two only. 

In general, over the last 15 years or so, federal funding has shifted away from things like shelters and toward more permanent solutions like housing. Five open shelter beds in a county that estimates there are at least 8000 homeless people and probably many more is not ideal. 

Still, five open shelter beds is five chances for the operators to actually help their callers, and everyone’s excited. 

     Rashana: Hi Mr. Reese. Are you done with your dialysis for the day?

At the very end of the day – around 5pm – Rashana gets a caller who needs one of those five beds. She’s ready. She actually has something to offer because there are still a couple left. 

Only there’s a problem. The client is across town at a kidney dialysis center, and he needs to be at the shelter by 6pm. 

     Rashana: No, no, no. 6, yes. 6 tonight.

It’s currently around 10 minutes after 5.

     Rashana: Is there anyone there? No, calm down, calm down. It’s OK. Is there anyone there that would be willing to give you a ride?

This caller, whose name is James Reese, was panicking. If he couldn’t get into the shelter, he worried he’d have to sleep outside that night

     Mr. Reese: No one here. There’s no one here to help me, at all. They say I can’t, this and that, this and that. I’m stuck.

     Rashana: Um. Let me, let me place you on a quick hold to see what I can do about transportation, OK? 

The 211 operators don’t really have a budget to help callers with transportation but there is this very small fund Rashana tells me – for Lyft rides. It’s only supposed to be for rides to the grocery store and doctor’s appointments though.

     Rashana: I know that that funding is very strict. And they tell us to be very strict with it.

     Rashana: You don’t have a way to even take the bus, Mr. Reese?

     Mr. Reese: No. You guys are here trying to help me and I appreciate you so much. 

     Rashana: OK, one moment.

Rashana puts Mr. Reese back on hold and opens the app for Lyft on her computer. Her brow is furrowed. Her cursor is hovering over the ‘request ride’ button. She says to me:

     Rashana: So this is where the humanity comes into it.

Which I don’t really understand at first, but then I get it. Most of the day it’s: do you fit the criteria or not, call the number, read the script, go through the protocols. But right now, she gets to be a human instead of a bureaucrat.

     Rashana: [WHISPERS] I’m going to do it.

     Rashana: OK. Mr. Reese, I’m gonna get you a Lyft ride. Hold on one second. Hold on one second.

     Mr. Reese: OK, OK.

Mr. Reese has 40 minutes to get to the shelter. It’s a 30-minute ride with traffic.

     Rashana: You’ll be getting picked up in three minutes by a Ricardo. He’s driving a white Honda Accord.

     Mr. Reese: OK. OK. I’ll be sitting in the lobby.

     Rashana: Have a good night.

     Mr. Reese: Thank you. Bye-bye.

Rashana hangs up the phone. But on her computer screen, we can see that Ricardo, the driver, has pulled up to the address Mr. Reese gave, but he’s just sitting there. Why would Ricardo just be sitting there? Maybe Mr. Reese wasn’t actually in the car.

     Rashana: He’s waiting – he’s going to leave. [PHONE DIALING]

     Mr. Reese: Hello.

     Rashana: Hi, Mr. Reese, he’s there. He’s waiting.

     Mr. Reese: OK. I’m coming up. I’m coming out right now.

     Rashana: OK, you may want to hurry.

     Mr. Reese: OK. OK. Thank you.

     Rashana: Mr. Reese, he’s now left and the ride was canceled. 

     Mr. Reese: Huh? NO! NO! I’m right here! 

     Rashana: Mmm-hmm. I don’t know if I can do that. Hold on one second, Mr. Reese.

She puts him back on hold. I’m not sure if she’s going to get him another Lyft – or if that was his one chance. It’s 5:30. He’d already be late, but maybe not too late? Rashana tries again.

     Rashana: Robel in a green Toyota Prius will be picking you up in six minutes. 

     Mr. Reese: Pardon me? Oh gosh, hello?

     Rashana: I’m still here, Mr. Reese. 

     Mr. Reese: Oh. OK, OK. 

     Rashana: I have to stay on with you till you get in that car. 

We wait on the phone while Robel makes his way there.

     Rashana: Five more minutes. [WHISPERS] Oh, he’s not gonna. He’ll still be late. 

[WHISTLING]

Mr. Reese whistles nervously as time passes.

[WHISTLING]

     Mr. Reese: Oh come on, car.

     Rashana: Oh, he’s there. He’s waiting for you. Green Toyota Prius. 

     Mr. Reese: Ma’am! I am standing…

     Rashana: OK, Mr. Reese, you may have to walk around and look for a green Toyota Prius. Come on, let’s look for the vehicle. 

     Mr. Reese: OK. 

     Rashana: Yes. So you can get in there. 

We can see the driver’s blue dot hovering on the screen – circling the block. Mr. Reese is running out of time, but they don’t seem to be finding each other.

     Rashana: OK. Let me try to call the driver. Hold on one second. [PHONE DIALING] Please answer, Robel.

     Robel: Hello?

     Rashana: Hi, Robel? 

There are four more agonizing minutes of back and forth on a conference call between Rashana, Mr. Reese, and Robel the Lyft driver. Mr. Reese is describing landmarks, describing himself…

     Mr. Reese: I’m in the parking lot. I got a loud red t-shirt and black pants. I’m out, standing in the middle of the parking lot, with a cane.

Finally, they find each other.

     Rashana: You’re in the car?

     Mr. Reese: Thank you. I’m in the car.

     Rashana: Perfect. You’re gonna be a few minutes late, but just calmly explain that you were told to come.

     Mr. Reese: OK, thank you.

     Rashana: You’re welcome.

He thanks her, she hangs up. And we both lean back and exhale. 

     Katie: Phew!

     Rashana: So good. He’s on his way. 

     Katie: Wow. 

     Rashana: Yeah. Good. That’s a good thing. I guess that’s what keeps you going. Even if it’s one person that gets a place inside tonight. It’s, like, good. And I’m done for the day.

     Katie: So you’re out. 

     Rashana: I’m out. I’m off. No lunch. 

Getting Mr. Reese to that shelter was one tangible thing before the day’s end. One person who Rashana knew for sure wouldn’t sleep outside that night, at least partly because of her. It doesn’t always go like that. A lot of the time, these operators have to be the voice that tells people there isn’t help. The thing they need doesn’t exist, and there’s nothing they can do to change that.  

I hadn’t thought about it that much before this reporting, but bureaucracies aren’t just frustrating for the people trying to navigate them, they’re frustrating for the people working inside of them too. No one really has any agency, no power to make a decision that could really help someone. All the operators told me that the best calls – the best days – are when you feel like you actually had something to offer. A lot of the time you don’t. A lot of the time you feel like all you’re doing is passing people off to be put on a list. And yes, there is actually one big master list of homeless people in Alameda County. But you only get help with housing if you get to the top of it.

I learned all about how this list works and why Tulicia never got any help with housing.

But first, how did we even arrive at the idea that if someone is homeless, what they need is a house? Because It might sound obvious now, but it wasn’t always that way. 

That’s next time on According to Need. After the break, a preview.

[BREAK]

Next time on According to Need.

     Qamar: I slept all over the place. I slept in a cardboard box under the FDR Drive. I think that was right under the bridge.

     Sam: There was like an awareness that whatever this is, whatever we’re trying to do with this population… It’s not working. 

     Allen: Oh, yeah, I used to fight a lot. I do got a short temper when it comes to a bunch of bull crap.

     Sam: Our applicants repeatedly failed the housing interviews. We could not persuade housing providers to take anybody. We were failing miserably. 

     Qamar: I felt really bad. I wish I could get off these drugs.

     Sam: If people are on the street, you’re never going to be able to have those conversations because it’s all about where am I going to sleep and what am I going to eat. And, you know, like, am I safe? 

     Allen: Sam told us that the apartment was ours, as soon as we get the leases.

     Sam: They loved the idea that they could have their own place in a regular building and not be identified as living in a program. It was a great seller. It was a dream. So, you know, we just, uh, went with it.

A few decades ago, an experiment in New York City flipped the script completely on how to help people out of homelessness. That’s coming up on According to Need.

This chapter of According to Need was produced by me, Katie, with associate producer Abby Madan and managing editor Whitney Henry-Lester. Roman Mars was the Executive Producer. Invaluable editing from Lisa Pollak, Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Christopher Johnson, Joe Rosenberg, and Roman Mars. Brendan Baker was our sound engineer. Fact-checking by Amy Gaines. Beautiful music by the beautiful Sean Real. Branding and Design by MUCHMORE.io. Kurt Kohlstedt was our digital director. Additional support from Sofia Klatzker, Vivian Le, and Chris Berube.

Special thanks to all the people who spoke to me for this series as well as Marisol Medina-Cadena, Alison DeJung, Johanna Zorn and Chelsea Miller.

According to Need is a project of 99% Invisible, which is a founding, proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a network of independent, listener-supported, artist-owned podcasts.

 

Credits

According to Need was produced by Katie Mingle, with associate producer Abby Madan and managing editor Whitney Henry-Lester. Further invaluable editing from Roman Mars, Lisa Pollak, Emmett FitzGerald, Delaney Hall, Christopher Johnson and Joe Rosenberg. Sound engineering by Brendan Baker. Fact checking by Amy Gaines. Beautiful music by the beautiful Sean Real. Branding and Design by MUCHMORE.io. Kurt Kohlstedt was our digital director. Additional support from Sofia Klatzker, Vivian Le and Chris Berube. Special thanks to everyone who was interviewed for this series as well as Marisol Medina Cadena, Alison DeJung, Elsa Gonzalez, and all the 211 operators who spoke with us.

According to Need is a project of 99% Invisible which is distributed by PRX.

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