Interview with Larry Haynes
This passionate straight-talker tells why it costs you more to do nothing than provide housing to a homeless man, how he wins over NIMBYs, and why being the son of a steel worker makes him better at his job.
When you speak with Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which provides housing and services to the homeless, the term “mercy” never actually comes up. In fact, moral arguments about why we should end homelessness and care for our fellow man seem as distant as his deep religious convictions.
Instead, there’s a lot of talk about fiscal responsibility and the impact of homelessness on housing values and local business profits. There’s the occasional mention of giving people their dignity back, and even a moment of tearing up when he speaks of a success story and quotes the lines to a Peter Gabriel song. But most of the talk is something like this: “I’ve run the numbers and if we made the right decisions, based on how many people need help and how much money is in the system, we could end homelessness in Orange County in about four years.”
Bold claims indeed, but somehow believable when they come from Haynes, who’s spent more than 25 years fighting to end homelessness. In short, Haynes has seen it all, coming to Mercy House when it was in its infancy, renting a Santa Ana house and providing transitional housing for 10 men (“Quite possibly illegally,” laughs Haynes) to now, in which Mercy House shelters or houses 3,000 men, women and children a year, serving another 2,000 in outreach programs.
So we sat down with Haynes to ask him about his long and colorful career and why homelessness in Orange County is on the decline.
How did you come to Mercy House?
I was a grad student at USC working on my doctorate in social ethics in the school of religion and I started volunteering at a smaller nonprofit. I worked as a case manager for a number of years, and when Mercy House’s chairman was looking to start up Mercy House, I gave him a tour of our facility. I think I was a little self-important because legend has it that after I gave him this tour he told people, “What an ass that guy was, but I really like him. That’s the kind of guy for us.” I think he thought that’s what it would take to get things going. So when Mercy House was ready to hire its first employee I applied for the job and have been here over 26 years.
What were those first years like?
We had no assets. I was the only employee. And we had $25,000 in the bank to pay my salary, the rent and everything else. We were doing transitional housing for 10 men. My office was literally in the back of the rental house, next to the laundry room, with no insulation. So it was 100-plus in the summer and freezing in the winter. I was young and dumb enough to think, “Hey, this is a great opportunity for me!”
So how did you survive?
There’s this old saying that God takes care of children and fools. I think that was to my advantage that I didn’t really understand how precarious things were at the beginning. The first few years, we were the absolute picture of grass roots. We did everything, from the case management to the janitorial work. And maybe it’s being the son of a steel worker and having some class consciousness, but I still clean the bathrooms. There isn’t a job that’s beneath me or anybody’s station. We all have that attitude and I think it’s critical to a healthy culture.
Did coming from humble beginnings help?
I think so. I define myself as very blue collar. I had this sense that if we just rolled our sleeves up and worked hard it would pay off.
Did you see yourself doing this as a young boy?
No. I assumed I would work in the steel mill like my father, or in a factory somewhere. I was lucky, though. I was pretty good at sports and I was an “A” student so I got good opportunities. But I think growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Riverside and being disciplined in our budgets had a huge impact on me. It gave me sympathy for middle-class people struggling to get by… I also have a younger brother who is disabled. And I watched his struggles and how hard life is for him, and I think that also gives me a certain empathy.
So what moved you to dedicate your life and career to ending homelessness?
I was at USC in the doctorate program and I thought I was going to be a theologian, the next big thing. But then I saw the steel mill close, and unjustly that [affected] my father. I saw how some treated my brother. And I realized that my entire life needs to be dedicated to pursuing social justice, specifically helping those who are struggling financially and living on the streets.
Is there a typical homeless profile?
No. It can happen to anyone. Of course you have people with serious mental health disabilities who are very damaged. But I’d say the majority are working people who the system just left behind. Good people who made all the right decisions, but maybe they got sick, or their company downsized, their car broke down, something happened to one of their children. That’s why there can’t be a one-size-fits-all answer.
You say your mission is to end homelessness. Are you being literal?
Yes. For years people talked about managing homelessness and having a charitable response. Back when I first started, the thinking was, “Let’s just run a nice agency and do the best we can for who we can because we’re never really going to be able to end homelessness.” And if you have that mindset, then your response is going to be limited. But about 10 years ago, we started talking about ending homelessness. In other words, how do we move beyond agency thinking and charity to systems thinking, which is justice. Not just how we help the person in need who comes my way, but how do we alter society. How do we change the world – and I know that sounds so lame – but seriously, “How do we change society’s structures so homelessness doesn’t continue to happen?”
Are you making progress?
Yes. That’s the good news. The numbers of homeless are going down. Once upon a time we talked about 35,000 homeless in Orange County. Now it’s a little over 12,000.
But we hear about how bad the problem is all the time.
Right. It goes against everybody’s narrative because at the end of the year when you want to raise money you say, “Oh my God, it’s all terrible and getting worse. Please give us money.” But we would rather take a strength-based approach. “Support us because we know what we’re doing. These strategies are making a difference even in an economy that’s been very difficult for a long time. So, yes, there is still an incredible need, but it’s also a cause that’s a good bet.
You claim we could end homelessness in Orange County in four years. Does that include a lot more taxpayer spending?
Not at all. Here’s how we do it. A healthy prevention system for at-risk people so they don’t lose their housing. Everyone who is currently on the street gets in-program housing until they get permanent housing. And then having a system in place so that anybody who slips through the cracks within 30 days we place in permanent housing. All that can be done within four years in Orange County with current public and private dollars. We just have to fund the right things and stop funding things that don’t work.
What about those who say they don’t want their tax dollars housing those with substance abuse problems?
I’d point out that it costs society more to do nothing than to give an addict living on the street keys to an apartment for the rest of his life.
If somebody is on the street there are certain costs to society that will become absolutely obscene after a while. When they’re sick, they end up in an emergency room, and even a short stay in a hospital can be somebody’s rent for a month or two. Folks living on the street drive other costs as well: increased demand on police departments, fire departments, paramedics, on and on. Then there’s the cost to local business. Who wants to enter a business when there’s someone sleeping in their doorway? There’s also the depreciation of property values when there’s a park that’s known as a homeless park across the street. So it is in our self-interest to end this because it will actually cost us less as taxpayers.
Do you require people to be drug-free to give them temporary shelter?
The mission of Mercy House is to end homelessness. It’s not necessarily to re-create a new person first and then let them move in. Of course, after they move in we get them services. But we believe when someone is homeless it is a violation of their human dignity. But let me humbly suggest that a person is more likely to become sober when their operating platform is an apartment as opposed to a bush… You have a better likelihood of staying on your medications so you don’t have schizophrenic episodes if you have a routine in an apartment rather than living under a pier. So let’s fix the homelessness first, then we can address all those other issues.
What about people who don’t want a shelter or transitional housing in their neighborhood?
Well, in Santa Ana, when we wanted to open up our first home for single moms and their children, I got my first exposure to that. We had to get a conditional use permit, so I walked the neighborhood and knocked on doors. Now, in my classes in school, I had thought anybody who dared oppose what we were doing was just a greedy capitalist who cared more about property values than human values. Then I started talking to the people about what we wanted to do in their neighborhood. And suddenly I looked around and saw the neighborhood that I had grown up in, a very working class neighborhood with decent people. I could see fear in them, but not hate, and not prejudice.
Elaborate on that.
As I talked to them, it occurred to me that their concerns were the same concerns that my dad had. My dad worked at Kaiser Steel in Fontana and saved forever for this crappy little home. All he wanted was a neighborhood where it was safe for his boy to play stickball out front or play football at the local schoolyard without getting shot. He wanted to live in a home where maybe there was some equity so he could support his kids when they went to college… And it occurred to me as I was walking this Santa Ana neighborhood that those are very legitimate concerns. They have to be honored.
So what did you do?
We had a neighborhood meeting. There were 24 people there. And it got ugly. Really ugly. We were the worst thing ever and it was the end of the community. I just talked like a normal guy and had answers for their concerns and was honest about what we would do and how we would do it. By the end of it 22 people were in support, one was opposed, and one was on the fence. That’s been our history when we speak to people. Generally, they want us in their neighborhoods.
Why? What turns them?
The quality of our work and our emphasis on relationships. Another thing we do as a neighbor is work with the neighbors and help them with some of their needs and concerns. If the trash service is inadequate, those are now our concerns, too. If we need a stop sign on the corner for safety, we’ll get involved… It has everything to do with being a decent person and neighbor. So in Santa Ana we actually had the neighborhood going to the city council on our behalf. Which just doesn’t happen; it’s usually the reverse.
You also have a Mercy House full college scholarship to Vanguard University. Has that helped anyone yet?
Yes, from the start. Our first scholarship went to a student named Robert. His mom had a drug issue and was here as a single mother. Robert was a decent high school student, a “B” average. He was going to work in a warehouse somewhere. He had no concept of going to college. But we saw his potential. And he worked hard, graduated summa cum laude with a 3.9 grade point average in biology and is now in graduate school studying to be a doctor. His life will never be the same, thanks to Mercy House. That feels great.
Mercy House will have its annual
Living With Heart Gala on May 3
at the Fairmont Newport Beach.
The evening will feature silent
and live auctions, gourmet dinner,
live entertainment, and more.