Interview with Michael Mata: Addressing Homelessness in LA
Michael Mata has been deeply involved in the policy and grassroots efforts to improve LA for several decades, so I wanted to get his perspective on the large number of homeless individuals in the city. The problem has been around for years, but I’ve struggled to understand why it persists. What has been tried? What isn’t working, and why?
“LA has the least affordable housing in the U.S.,” said Mata. “We are not the most expensive, but our wages haven’t kept up. We are also the most densely populated in the United States. And we simply don’t have enough housing.”
He explained that the idea of a single room occupancy rental has gone by the wayside. People don’t have a place to start off, paying only a small rate for one room while they work their way up. Because of this, there is not enough starter housing so the alternate option is the street.
According to Mata, this is an issue because “the longer you stay on the street, it really affects what you do. It is no longer about moving up. It is about survival.”
In the past, Mata was a part of a blue-ribbon commission on homelessness, along with several other religious leaders. They laid out a plan to tackle the lack of housing, but it was not acted upon. Now, a lot of money is coming in to address these issues, and they are trying to make a dent in getting people housed. However, until housing production picks up, as Mata puts it, “we’re really in a tough place.”
So what can the Church do, aside from task forces? What are the grassroots means available to meet these needs?
“A lot of us have already been doing it. We are speaking to the choir, literally,” said Mata.
Many churches, including Mata’s Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene, are currently serving multiple meals each week, they have nurses available to serve those in need, and so much more.
Mata said that in LA, the churches have a lot of underutilized property. The question is, what can be done to fully utilize those resources? Can they be used for shelters? Affordable housing?
The LA Homeless Services Authority has recently come to many of these churches, recognizing what they are already doing to meet needs, stating they are willing to provide additional funding for them to scale. However, that funding often comes with safety requirements and insurance riders that require more resources than these mostly small to mid-size churches can handle.
“Not all of these churches have the capacity to respond to that offer,” said Mata.
One such church in LA has more than 90,000 square feet of unused classroom space, but the money and resources it would require to rehab it and meet the necessary stipulations make it impossible to execute. And this is a common theme for many churches.
I asked him what happens in the meantime. Mata replied that slowly additional housing is being built and churches continue to respond in ways they are called to respond, improvising until more permanent solutions can be found.