Help for the Homeless

March 01, 2012  

John Wagner says LA’s Weingart Center assists people during hard times.

By Danielle Beurteaux

  John Wagner: I can remember being shocked by beggars in Mexico when I was 14
John Wagner got his first glimpse of people living on the streets during a family vacation. "I can remember being shocked by beggars in Mexico when I was 14," he says. And yet he grew up only 30 miles west of Los Angeles and its large homeless population. He had no idea the same problem was so close to home.

But Wagner, 54, managing partner and CIO of Los Angeles–based Camden Asset Management, a $2.5 billion convertible bond specialist firm, is now well educated in the issues surrounding homelessness. Wagner is a board member of the Weingart Center, one of the country’s largest social services organizations for the homeless.

The Weingart Center is a one-stop support provider for LA’s homeless population, estimated to be the largest in the country at 51,000 people. The organization is housed in the former El Rey Hotel, an 11-story building located in the middle of Los Angeles’s infamous skid row. Weingart’s services include short-term housing, case management, health care, education and life skills classes.

Wagner first became involved with the Weingart Center when a friend and Weingart board member asked him to help out with the organization’s first annual golf tournament and fundraiser. Both Wagner and the golf tournament are sharing a 16-year anniversary on April 30, the date of the next tournament.

The Weingart Center’s clients are people who have fallen off the grid and have trouble functioning, says Wagner. They tend to lack basic survival and social skills.

"They don’t have what it takes to maintain relationships so you can have a job and support yourself and deal with the ups and downs that life throws at you," he says. "Anyone who is down there at that level of impoverishment has something that’s not quite working well."

One of the core reasons homelessness is such a difficult problem to combat is that there isn’t one type of homelessness or a single cause or a single profile of a homeless person — there are many of each.

"You have this huge continuum of people, anywhere from a six-person family living in a one-bedroom apartment and spending half of their disposable income on rent — that’s the higher end of the spectrum — to the people who have severe mental issues out on the street in downtown LA," says Wagner.

The recession has exacerbated the problem. Food pantries and soup kitchens are feeling the crunch, and demand has increased enormously.

Another big problem is lack of affordable housing, says Wagner. But having permanent and low-cost housing is key to keeping people off the streets. One of Weingart’s new initiatives is a permanent housing project. The organization plans to construct and manage apartments where it can place homeless individuals and families, and provide continuous support.

Such initiatives demonstrate what makes Weingart unique, says Wagner. "They’re trying to attack a hard problem in a thoughtful way."

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