Ken Craft is the founder and CEO at Hope of the Valley rescue mission. I interviewed him at the Alexandria Park Tiny Home site, the largest tiny home community in the state of California. At that site, there are 103 tiny homes, 200 beds, toilets, sinks, laundry facilities and services. As Ken says, “Anything and everything that somebody would need to overcome the barriers that are preventing them from being housed are offered right here.”
“I am the founder and CEO at Hope of the https://www.hopeofthevalley.org/Valley rescue mission, and we are seated at the largest tiny home community in the state of California. Here, there are 103 tiny homes, 200 beds, and this is a great resource in the fight against homelessness here in Los Angeles.
I grew up in a Christian family, very religious, and I became a pastor. I was a youth pastor for many years and I was a senior pastor for many years and the church just continued to grow. We’d have 2200 people in weekend attendance. But then I had my own failure and it cost me everything. I had an affair and I was escorted out the back door of the church and it was devastating. Not just for me, but for everybody else as well.
When your whole identity is wrapped up in what you do and how everybody sees you, and then all of a sudden that’s gone, it can be pretty dark moment.
So I tried several different jobs and I landed a really good job with Equifax national credit bureau. As I was climbing that corporate ladder, I got a phone call from a guy who ran a rescue mission in Oxnard, California. He had gone to my church and he said to me, ‘Hey, have you ever considered working with the poor and the homeless?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’ And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come have lunch with me? And I thought the guy was at least going to take me out to lunch. Instead we went to have lunch with everybody sitting in the rescue mission. And honestly, it was one of those defining moments in my life. A real crossroads. Because as I sat there with him, I looked in that cafeteria and I saw people and I thought, ‘Man, that could have been me. That should have been me, but for the grace of God.’
It was a very dark season. Honestly, I contemplated suicide. You know, you go from the penthouse to the doghouse. There were some moments of clarity when I remember standing in front of the mirror, pretty disgusted with myself. I was stripped of everything. And it was at that moment that I discovered new dimensions of who God is in my failure than I ever did in my successes. I discovered new dimensions of what it really means to experience God’s unconditional love, his grace, his forgiveness, and what it is to not be so judgmental of others and self-righteous. It’s easy to have those attitudes, but my failure had a way of kind of slapping that right out of me.
Los Angeles, unfortunately has the dubious title of being the homeless capital of the United States. And there’s a lot of homegrown homelessness here. There’s some imports, but most of it’s home grown primarily because of the cost of living. The average cost of a one bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is $2,200. And that’s just not very affordable for someone who’s making minimum wage.
Every year we do have a homeless count—not last year because the pandemic—but the year before, there were 68,000 that were homeless. But for those of us in the industry and in this field of service, we really believe it’s closer to 80,000 people that are homeless, just because of the inaccuracies and insufficiencies of the way we do the count.
So anybody that lives in Los Angeles, who has traveled to Los Angeles, who has visited Los Angeles recently is almost taken back by the number of encampments, the number of people living on the streets and just the humanitarian crisis that we find ourselves in.
We didn’t just wake up one day and wonder where all these people that are homeless came from. Unfortunately there’s been some systemic and systematic decisions that have kind of isolated certain people and we are, as an agency, committed to doing what we can to help right those wrongs.
In 2016, there was a bond measure that was passed in the city of Los Angeles. And we all taxed ourselves and said, ‘You know what, we’ve got to address this homeless crisis.’ So the bond measure was for $1.2 billion to create 10,000 units of affordable housing. So we were all cheering and saying, ‘Yay, we’re going to build our way out of this. Unfortunately the very first affordable housing complex from that bond measure did not open until January of 2020. Four years. That’s a problem. And the average cost was $530,000 per unit, hardly affordable housing. And it became apparent from the federal government, the mantra and the push has been the cure to homelessness is permanent supportive housing. We have to get people in permanent housing. Well, that’s great if you have places to build it and if you can build it quickly, but the streets cannot be the waiting room for permanent housing.
And so in 2018, the mayor of Los Angeles did something that I am forever eternally grateful for. He saw how long it was taking to build the permanent housing. And he saw this is going to be a problem. So he declared a shelter emergency. Now that might not sound like much to the average listener, but when your mayor declares a shelter emergency, it enables certain things to happen. Number one, an organization like Hope of the Valley…We were only able to build shelters that had 30 beds or less. And we could only open them in zonings that were commercial or commercial manufacturing. And so we were very limited in our ability to have scalable impact. So when he declared the shelter emergency, now for organizations like Hope of the Valley, there is no limit to how many people that we can have in a shelter and we can open up shelters in manufacturing zoning. So it just opened the field for us.
He treated the humanitarian crisis for what it is, and it was an extraordinary move to do that. Then one other thing that happened that really changed the landscape. A little over a year and a half ago, there was an organization called the Alliance for Human Rights. They filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles. And the lawsuit said, listen, Los Angeles and sanitation and LAPD, you keep going and wiping out all the encampments, but you don’t have anywhere for people to go.
So just shuffling them around playing whack-a-mole, but you haven’t made any provisions. There are no beds here. So you keep traumatizing people over and over by wiping out the encampments, but you don’t have anywhere for them to go.
That’s cruel and inhumane. And so [the judge] said, ‘here’s what’s going to happen.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to let you enforce your no camping laws until a particular city council district is able to provide beds for 60% of the previous year’s homeless count.’ So he put the pressure back on the city council and said, ‘as soon as you hit your 60%, you can have your enforcement.’
Now why 60%? Because when he did this in Orange County, what they found was this: If you have a park that has 100 homeless people in it, and then right next to it, you build 100 tiny homes, and you go back to the park and say, ‘Listen, we have laws. You can’t camp in a park like this. We have provisions for you. We actually have a tiny home for you. And either you take advantage of what we have, or unfortunately, you’re going to have to face enforcement and the law.’
They found that 20% of those people self-resolve. They figure it out, they go live with somebody. They leave the streets. Another 20% they found are just shelter resistant. But the 60%, they will actually come inside and they’ll access the services that are made available to them. And then in a humane way, they can say, ‘Listen, it’s not okay for you to be on the streets. We have provisions for you.’
What’s so magical about these tiny homes is that these tiny homes are manufactured by Pallet Shelter out of Seattle, Washington. And if you get three people here that know what they’re doing, they can put these together in an hour. That’s how quick they go up. And this entire site that you’re sitting at where there’s 100 of these tiny homes, the whole site was put together in 90 days from beginning to end. 90 days and onsite, there are not only 100 tiny homes, there’s 15 toilets, 15 sinks, 15 showers, nine washers, nine dryers. There’s case management, there’s housing navigation, there’s mental health services, substance abuse counseling, and treatment. There’s job training, job placement, three meals a day. Anything and everything that somebody would need to overcome their barriers that are preventing them from being housed are offered right here.
Now we know that this is not the end solution. This is temporary. This is what’s known as interim housing or bridge housing. And so I remind people, I love nothing more than having a direct flight to New York. But if I can’t get a direct flight to New York, then you know what? I’ll at least take a flight to Denver so that I can then fly from Denver to New York. And that’s what this is. This is that interim. This is going to get you halfway there. And then like last month alone, we were able to move 24 people from interim housing, into permanent housing, into their own places.
But again, to leave people on the streets while you’re building permanent housing is cruel and inhumane. That’s like taking somebody that has hypothermia and telling them the wait out in the snow until the doctor could see them. You wouldn’t do that. And so unfortunately we had some systems that weren’t truly in the best interest of those that were suffering.
These tiny homes are manufactured for crisis and emergencies. In other words, this would not qualify for your typical R-one home, a residential home, because there’s no water inside of them. There’s no toilets inside of them, but these are manufactured for a crisis. And for whatever reason prior to this year, we didn’t want to respond as if it was a humanitarian crisis.
Imagine if there was an earthquake here in Los Angeles, and there were 100,000 people that became homeless because of red tagged buildings. I promise you the Red Cross would be here. The National Guard would be here. And within 24 hours, there would be makeshift shelters available so that people would not have to sleep outside. And yet we’ve been kicking the can down the road for years. But right now is a very important time where you’ve got a little bit of pressure from a federal judge who says, ‘You know what? You need to provide beds.’ And you’ve got pressure from taxpayers that are saying, ‘We just taxed ourselves $1.2 billion.’ And I believe that we are at an inflection point right now.
I realize people might drive the city and say, ‘I don’t see the progress.’ But it is darkest before the dawn. And I know that give it another couple years, four years, five years, you’re going to see dramatic change in the landscape of Los Angeles.”
-Have you ever made a decision that altered the path of your life?
-Have you ever needed to start from scratch?
-When have you had a moment of clarity about what you needed to do?
-How do you understand the housing crisis in America?
-Ken uses some statistics about homelessness. Do they surprise you?
-Why do you think we struggle to find the political will to tackle the housing crisis?
-What are some of the larger social costs you see to allowing the crisis to go unaddressed?
-What are the barriers you see to getting people into more stable housing?
-NIMBY…not in my back yard…have you seen this play out in your community? Have you seen it in yourself?