Cultivating an understanding of the local homeless individual

Mayoral advisor on homelessness speaks to church congregation about the victims of housing insecurity.

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The majority of homeless individuals throughout the Long Beach area are people simply trying to meet their daily needs after falling into difficult times because of rising rents, domestic abuse and a system of social services that can be lengthy and complicated in returning residents to a state of housing security.

That sentiment was the primary takeaway from a lecture on Sunday by Daniel Brezenoff, a clinical social worker who serves as a senior advisor to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and as the temporary 1st District administrator until a special election determines who will resume the seat left by former councilmember Lena Gonzalez, who now serves in the state senate.

Brezenoff may be donning a number of hats at this time, but his perspective on homelessness is clear: housing is a human right.

With 15 years of experience working with agencies that address housing, homelessness and mental health, Brezenoff, who had formerly served as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, returned to working for Garcia in January, primarily as an advisor on those particular issues.

Daniel Brezenoff, a clinical social worker who serves as a senior advisor to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and as the temporary 1st District administrator, speaks to the congregation of Grace First Presbyterian Church on July 14 about homelessness in the area.

The 1st District, where Brezenoff lives with his family, is an area that is inundated with homeless individuals, partially because that is where many social services are located.

In an August 2018 interview with the Signal Tribune, then 1st District Councilmember Gonzalez elaborated on the concentration of homelessness and programs in that area, which includes downtown.

“In the 1st District, my district, fortunately or unfortunately– however you look at it– we are the core of social services,” Gonzalez said. “Just in that small radius alone, we have [Mental Health America], Christian Outreach […], Second Samoan Church, Long Beach Rescue Mission, the First Congregational Church– and they’re all providing homeless services. So, I know, in a larger context, people don’t want to hear it, but [those] experiencing homelessness, oftentimes they’re going to be in these areas.”

Brezenoff, who said he and his children encounter homeless people on a daily basis, spoke about the current state of homelessness in the area– and what he has learned through his experiences as a social worker associating with that segment of the population– during a “Lunch and Learn” talk on July 14 at Grace First Presbyterian Church. Brezenoff clarified that, because he was speaking on a Sunday during the church’s luncheon, he was providing his thoughts in an informal capacity, unrelated to official city business.

His presentation focused on the fact that those experiencing homelessness are people who are just trying to get by, in the face of extremely challenging circumstances, and that residents who take a harsh stance in addressing the problem need to adjust their mindset when considering those who are dealing with finding a safe place to sleep.

“Caring for our neighbor– that’s the meaning of community,” he said during his lecture. “And maybe it’s the meaning of civilization.”

Brezenoff then spoke about the numerous factors that have contributed to the homeless problem in Long Beach, attempting to dispel the myth that such residents are in their current situation because they are “lazy and they’re drug addicts.”

“In 2008, we had the housing crash,” he said. “Many people lost a great deal of their savings, just as they reached retirement. It made governments cut back on public services. And, soon after this, the housing market rebounded, [and], as you know, Prop 13 really keeps the State from reaping a lot of the benefits of a hot real-estate market. So, you’ve got increasing land prices. People love to come to California– we all know why. There are many, many reasons people want to come to California. And so, all of this is happening at once, and we have this rental crisis that is up and down the state.”

He added that, in 2012, in response to the recession, the state eliminated redevelopment agencies, which had been a significant source of funding for the city government to build housing.

“So, we don’t have a source of that now– a consistent source [of funding] for building affordable housing,” he said. “Most of you rely on the private sector, the nonprofit sector and federal tax credits. Now, Gov. Newsom is starting to help by sending a little more money our way. But, as you know, housing takes a [while] to build. There’s not a whole lot of available land.”

Brezenoff added that affordable housing is usually more expensive to build than market-rate housing.

“The reason is affordable housing is always going to be built with subsidies because the developer can’t get the return on investment that they would with market housing,” he said. “And subsidies come with strings attached. You have to pay a certain wage [to crews], for example.”

He said the good news, however, is that the Everyone Home initiative and its task force have identified the sources of homelessness and is addressing the problem, but it takes time.

In the meantime, encampments have been appearing in various locations throughout the city. Brezenoff said he often hears residents declare that the occupants of such camps need to be “harassed” so that they will leave. That approach does not work, Brezenoff said, because those people will have to go somewhere, and, many times, they will occupy public park spaces because that is where they feel safe. Residents, however, should not be afraid of them, he said.

“I have two kids, and they see folks who are homeless probably every day,” he said. “I live right by Bixby Park. They go to school downtown. They’re not afraid of them, and this is the thing that blows people’s minds– there’s no reason to be. The reality is that people who are homeless are, by far, more likely to be victims of violent or serious crimes against their person or property than to perpetrate one. The crimes that homeless folks are more likely to commit are things like public urination, and it’s not a mystery why. It’s not because they’re just jerks and they want to pee on your rosebush. It’s because there’s no place to go to the bathroom. What are they supposed to do?”

Brezenoff said, after interacting with hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness, he has made several observations about them as people.

“Most of them are not addicted to drugs,” he said. “Most of them are from Long Beach, have roots here [and] have been here a while and lived inside. Most of them have worked many years in their life. Most of them would like to work again, if they’re able. Some are in their 60s or 70s, disabled. This is a time when they could be retired.”

Another problem, according to Brezenoff, is that the housing available to address homelessness is not always ideal. For example, drug dealers will prey on individuals living in places that are known to house those who have been experiencing homelessness.

He then mentioned the various programs the City has in place to address the issue, including the Multi-Services Center– which serves 13,000 people a year.

However, he also discussed the challenges associated with getting people to take advantage of such services, as not everyone is inclined to accept them.

“It’s not that they don’t want help,” Brezenoff said. “It’s that they’ve been through the ringer so many times and led down the path, and it didn’t pan out. They got a voucher, but they couldn’t find a place to accept the voucher. They went to this agency, but the social worker didn’t show up for the appointment. They went to a hospital because they were feeling suicidal, but they came back just feeling worse– more traumatized. It takes 17 or 18 times of talking to folks who are chronically homeless to get them even to be willing to accept services.”

Even then, Brezenoff said, the process is not simple, and it involves many unknown factors and additional challenges that may compel homeless individuals to resort to returning to the unfortunate circumstances with which they have become familiar.

“Services doesn’t mean, ‘Here’s the keys to your apartment and $500 in spending money,” he said. “Services means, ‘Fill out this form and maybe, in a few months, you might be able to get in line for some housing that you might be able to get, and it could be OK, but it could be awful, and you’d rather go back to the river.’”

Brezenoff emphasized that the vast majority of the local homeless population are people from the area– not transients who have relocated to Long Beach.

“It’s people in Long Beach who have been evicted, who can’t pay their rent, or maybe it’s domestic violence or divorce, or maybe they age out of foster care,” Brezenoff said. “So, that’s what’s happening, and this is why one of the things we really need to do is prevention, prevention, prevention. We don’t have a good system in place for keeping people in housing. It’s a tricky thing to do, but we’ve got to really work on that.”

Information about Long Beach’s programs to address homelessness is available at longbeach.gov/health/services/directory/homeless-services. Information about such services Los Angeles County provides is available at lacounty.gov/residents/social-services/homeless-services.