Everyone’s tired of homelessness in California. Are you willing to rent your extra room to help?
While efforts are underway to create roughly 8,200 new affordable housing units, experts agree that simply adding more homes will not be enough to end homelessness. To bring people indoors, Los Angeles County and the city of L.A. enlisted the help of motels, hotels and master leasing as a way to increase the supply of housing. Asking homeowners to be part of the solution seems like a logical next step.
L.A. Mayor Karen Bass emphasized at a media briefing of her first 100 days in office that all Angelenos need to step up and get involved in resolving the homelessness crisis. Corporate social responsibility experts say corporations have a moral duty to prevent or correct adverse impacts on society, but what about everyday people? Is it time for all hands on deck?
“The homelessness sector alone can’t solve this issue. Shared housing models can be a great way to facilitate a built-in community such as housing older adults, a rapidly growing homelessness population alongside young adults.”—Saba Mwine, managing director of USC’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute
“The homelessness sector alone can’t solve this issue,” said Saba Mwine, managing director of USC’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute. “Shared housing models can be a great way to facilitate a built-in community such as housing older adults, a rapidly growing homelessness population alongside young adults.”
On any given night in L.A. County, there are more than 75,000 people experiencing homelessness, up 9% from last year, according to a 2023 count of unhoused people by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Over 46,000 of them are in the city of L.A., a 10% increase from last year. These numbers include people in shelters and on the streets living in cars, RVs or makeshift tents.
Mwine said homelessness is the product of many systems and policies, historic and current. Moreover, the shortage of overall housing and high rents is something that needs to be addressed and that single family homeowners should also take advantage of incentives offered by the city, county and state to build Accessory Dwelling Units on their property for those in need.
“New housing needs to be built densely given the high cost of land, and at the same time, we have to preserve and maximize our current housing stock while we work to enforce access to housing for marginalized racialized identities,” she said.
Building on proven housing models
One program that shows the power of community support is Airbnb’s nonprofit arm started in 2020 to offer temporary housing for Afghan refugees. Airbnb.org also provided transitional housing to L.A. County first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Airbnb later committed $1.5 million to support 1,000 frontline workers with a place to stay in collaboration with L.A. County Health Services, the Service Employees International Union and United Healthcare Workers West.
Coral Itzcalli, a spokesperson for L.A. Health Services, told LAist that Airbnb made it “very easy” and that first responders were grateful for the program because being on the frontlines of the pandemic was emotionally, mentally and physically draining. Unhoused people face similar traumas and stressors that deprive them of mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. For people who have been incarcerated, those traumas can have long-lasting effects that lead to living on the streets.
The Homecoming Project, an initiative from the nonprofit Impact Justice, addresses housing challenges for formerly incarcerated individuals by matching participants with a homeowner who has a spare room for six months. The program launched in 2018 in the Bay Area, in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Host homeowners are paid a stipend of $45 per day plus a $400 bonus, and have no responsibility to provide services or care. Homecoming Project funding comes from county, state and philanthropic dollars without spending—or waiting—on new construction. Mwine, citing a reentry study, said programs like the Homecoming Project address the root causes of homelessness for people exiting the carceral system.
“When you get in an Uber, an airplane or go to the grocery store, we don’t know anything about anyone’s background, but we trust society to operate [as expected]. But as soon as we tell people this person’s been incarcerated, people change their perspective.”—Aishatu Yusuf, vice president of impact and innovation for Impact Justice
Aishatu Yusuf, vice president of impact and innovation for Impact Justice, said to date, the Homecoming Project has placed nearly 100 people and there are 14 people currently connected with host homes. The program boasts a 95% rate of individuals who leave with long-term housing and 96% who leave with employment, according to Yusuf. They focus on housing people who were sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.
“The reason we chose that population is because they’re the most likely to be homeless or houseless, and less likely to recidivate back into prison,” Yusuf said. “There’s a lot of data to support that when people can reintegrate back into community with folks around them to support them or to be in community with them, they have more likelihood to succeed. Oftentimes what happens, they create really lasting and really deep relationships.”
Formerly incarcerated individuals are provided a “community navigator” to help with reentry into society through mental health support, shopping for clothes and writing resumes, among other things, so they can eventually find employment and long-term housing. Yusuf said the biggest obstacle to getting the program up and running was finding people willing to open up their homes.
“When you get in an Uber, an airplane or go to the grocery store, we don’t know anything about anyone’s background, but we trust society to operate [as expected]. But as soon as we tell people this person’s been incarcerated, people change their perspective,” Yusuf said. “What we are doing is helping to change that narrative. [Formerly incarcerated people] are still worthy of love, and they live all around us.”
Yusuf said the Homecoming Project first reached out to clergy and churches inclined to believe in redemption and second chances. That’s how they found their first five hosts. From there, it became word of mouth.
“Until America has a big change in how we incarcerate people, we continue to have folks that are formerly incarcerated, which means we still have people that are in need of housing,” she said.
The Homecoming Project expanded to L.A. County in the spring with funding from the Hilton Foundation and the state of California. They are focused on communities in Long Beach and in East and South Los Angeles. They hope to place 250 people by 2025.
The Homecoming Project has the potential to be a gamechanger for Black Angelenos, who face the dual challenges of being disproportionately represented among both the incarcerated population and those experiencing homelessness. Due to systemic racism, nearly 32% of the unhoused population in L.A. County is Black, despite accounting for roughly 8% of the county’s total population, according to the most recent LAHSA point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. According to data provided by Impact Justice, 63% of Homecoming Project participants, formerly incarcerated individuals most vulnerable to homelessness, are Black; more than 80% are men.
“If we can shift the narrative and get regular people on the streets to say, ‘If I can do Craigslist, if I could do Vrbo, if I could do all of that, I could do Homecoming,’” said Yusuf.
Exploring the potential of rent subsidies in L.A. through Airbnb
The $45 per day stipend the Homecoming Project pays its hosts is close to what Martha Hernandez, an Airbnb Superhost, charges guests. For a one night stay in her El Sereno home’s spare bedroom, guests pay between $50 and $60. But, there are times when Hernandez is able to get upward of $90 per night.
“I think I would consider a subsidy program for long-term guests once my daughter finishes high school in two years and goes to college.”—Martha Hernandez, Airbnb host
“We had that extra bedroom that my sister used for a while, and it had been empty for about a year,” she said. Once the room, with a separate private entrance, was ready last fall, she started getting inquiries on Airbnb immediately. In January, Hernandez said every day was booked. “Completely booked, and it’s been nonstop,” she said. “It’s been amazing. It’s a lot of work. But, I like it.”
Hernandez said becoming a host has benefitted her family immensely because her four-bedroom, two-bathroom home carries a $1,600 mortgage. “I’ve made up to $2,000 in a month in that one little room,” she said, adding that she wished she had known about Airbnb when she was struggling as a single mother to put food on the table for her kids. Today, she’s been able to help with her son’s wedding and pay for private school for her teen daughter with the extra income. “It helps a lot. It really does.”
Hernandez’s financial motivation and genuine joy for providing the perfect room for guests makes her an ideal candidate if L.A. decided to partner with Airbnb to subsidize rent for hosts in a program similar to the Homecoming Project. She’s committed to her community and said she’s not interested in selling her house.
But, Hernandez has valid reservations about taking on a commitment to housing people—even if it comes with guaranteed subsidized rent. First, her Airbnb guests aren’t staying for long periods of time. She said the longest she’s had a guest is 17 days. She also likes the flexibility that comes with being able to block off certain days for family when they visit and she needs the extra bed and bathroom.
“But, then again,” she said reflecting on her time as a single mother, “I’d probably do whatever I had to do to survive. I think I would consider a subsidy program for long-term guests once my daughter finishes high school in two years and goes to college.”
Airbnb could be a crucial partner in addressing the homelessness crisis by engaging people already open to having strangers in their home. In 2021, there were more than 100,000 hosts in California offering rooms, apartments and homes on the platform, according to short-term rental market aggregation site AllTheRooms. (By the time of publication, Airbnb did not respond to AfroLA’s requests for company data on the number of hosts offering rooms or full homes/apartments on the platform in California or L.A., or for comment on the possibility of Airbnb.org partnering with L.A. County to house people living on the streets or currently staying in transitional shelters in the homes of area hosts.)
Experts say an Airbnb collapse won’t fix the housing shortage. So why not leverage it to be part of the solution?
Officials in Sedona, Arizona tried tackling their affordable housing crisis by offering incentives to short-term rental owners for housing local workers through its “Rent Local Program.” Homeowners already renting their properties on Airbnb or Vrbo could receive $3,000-$10,000 from the city. A Montana community started a similar pilot program in early 2020, but by August 2021, only 14 people had taken the city up on its offer. Many claimed they made more money on the short-term rental market.
Leveraging compassion and potential
If models already exist that could provide unhoused people with a place to stay, why aren’t we implementing them? A core issue is who deserves to be housed and treated well. Both Airbnb and the Homecoming Project rely on engaging individuals within the community to open up their spaces to those in need. The difference lies in the longer-term nature of the Homecoming Project, focused on sustained housing and reintegration, whereas Airbnb’s program only offers short-term relief during emergencies. L.A. Mayor Karen Bass declared homelessness a state of emergency on her first day in office and renewed it this month. A press release Monday described it as an “issue of life and death for the thousands of people who are living in tents and cars.”
These programs do highlight one important fact: Ordinary people can make a transformative difference in strangers’ lives while challenging societal stigmas of who is worthy of having their homes opened up to them.
A recent viral tweet seen by 2.5 million people alleged that a woman adopted a 20-year-old cat from a shelter because she didn’t want him to spend the rest of his life alone in a cage. People mostly found it heartwarming, responding it is a rewarding experience. One wonders if they had a spare room available in their homes, if they would find it as rewarding offering it to a human, one who spent a decade in a cage or lived on the streets.
Qian Wang and her husband, Robert Fletcher, were both ready to help create systemic change and make a difference in their Bay Area neighborhood, which has a severe housing crisis. Fletcher, 42, said he started looking at programs for refugees and people experiencing homelessness.
“It was a question of, ‘How can we directly help people?’” Fletcher said. “So much of the narrative is to get politically involved or protest. That stuff isn’t for me. I’d rather just help people on a smaller scale.”
Wang, 39, said a certain comfort comes from being politically active online. “You don’t have to really put yourself out there. It’s a lot of virtue signaling,” she said. “[But,] for us to live what we care about, we should be able to take some risks and see where it leaves us.”
A Google search by Fletcher led them to the Homecoming Project. Within three months they were matched with Joey Pagaduan, a formerly incarcerated individual released after 23 years in prison. The couple said Pagaduan moved into their Berkeley home on Jan. 1 as part of the Homecoming Project’s six-month agreement. They recently signed a lease with him for an additional year.
Pagaduan founded Performances @ Solano—a theater arts and playwriting group inspired by the Marin Shakespeare Company—while incarcerated at California State Prison, Solano. He was also editor-in-chief and photographer for the prison’s quarterly newspaper. Pagaduan has drawn from those experiences to rebuild his life living with Wang and Fletcher. Today, he is a prolific actor in the Solano theater community. He’s enrolled in a coding bootcamp through CSU East Bay, working as an addiction counselor and interning with California Lawyers for the Arts and Marin Shakespeare Company.
Pagaduan has become a valued member of Wang and Fletcher’s family. “We told him he’s welcome to stay for as long as he wants,” Wang said. “We’ve formed an incredible bond with him. He’s like Uncle Joey to our kids.”
The host matching process challenged Wang’s prejudices about incarcerated people. “I had a lot of preconceived notions about who was the ‘right’ type of person that had been in prison,” she said. Several meetings with Pagaduan before he moved in completely shattered her misconceptions and eliminated her fears. The couple said that at any point they could have decided they weren’t comfortable; there was no pressure to commit until they were both 100% sure.
“I think what’s daunting to people is there are all these terrible things happening and you think you can’t do anything about it,” Wang said. The couple proved to themselves they could do something.
“[Pagaduan has] added to our lives immensely,” said Wang. Fletcher, sitting next to his wife on the couch, nodded in agreement. “It’s been incredibly rewarding,” he said.