Cobbling Together the Cobb
Patricia Garnett and Ruben Reyes recently moved from a shelter to the Charles Cobb Apartments. The complex on San Pedro Street held an opening ceremony last week. Photo by Gary Leonard.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - The Charles Cobb Apartments feels a lot like any market-rate residential complex Downtown. There is a flat-screen television and bright new furniture in the community room. Some of the 76 units boast balconies.

Then there’s the “green roof,” with its white stone terraces and colorful, water-saving succulents gardens, illuminated at night by elegant light fixtures and an expansive view of the Downtown skyline.

What sets the Cobb apart is its residents, all of them formerly homeless, and many of them once considered the most at risk of dying on the county’s streets. Although residents began arriving in April, the project at 521 S. San Pedro St. held an opening ceremony last week.

When the building’s nonprofit developer, Skid Row Housing Trust, was looking to fill the complex, its director of external affairs, Molly Rysman, went to places like New Image homeless shelter at 38th Street and Broadway. She told counselors there that she was looking for its most challenged clients.

“Don’t give me people you think are going to be easy to place in housing because they’re going to find housing other places,” she told them. “You need permanent supportive housing for people who are the hardest to place.”

That’s how Ruben Reyes, 32, landed at the Cobb. A self-proclaimed lifelong criminal — he had been in and out of jail for burglary and battery charges since 1994 — he was homeless and living near Koreatown about two years ago. Tired of his street life, Reyes, who also battles mental illness, landed at New Image.

Now he lives at the Cobb, in a fourth-floor apartment with its own bathroom, kitchen and television with cable that the building pays for. Living off of Supplemental Security Income, a federal and state-subsidized program for low-income people, Reyes spends his money on rent and things like video game consoles, which he says keep him busy and “out of trouble.”

New Home for Project 50

The $13.1 million Charles Cobb Apartments represents a continued investment by the city and county in permanent supportive housing, which combines residential space with in-house social services such as psychiatry and substance abuse counseling, as the predominant model for combating chronic homelessness.

SRHT has built or renovated 23 buildings in and around the poverty-stricken neighborhood, providing about 1,400 apartments for homeless men and women, many of whom are mentally ill and have a history of drug or alcohol addiction. But with each project, there is a different funding puzzle to get the edifice built and pay for the social services.

“The problem in Los Angeles is that we don’t have a system for doing integrated services in housing,” Rysman said.

Most projects are built with some city funds supporting construction, augmented by grants from public and private entities. County dollars are used primarily for services.

Traditionally county money is delivered to the housing providers, who in turn arrange for the services. At the Cobb, the county is providing the services directly, drawing on its resources and infrastructure in the Department of Mental Health and other agencies.

The approach is part of an effort introduced last year by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas called Strengthening Homeless Coordination.

“It’s looking at how does the county with its 37 departments coordinate resources?” said Kathy House, the county’s acting deputy CEO.

Historically, the county has not placed much emphasis on serving the most vulnerable parts of the homeless population, in part because those individuals were the least likely to walk into a county facility requesting aid.

Following in line with Project 50, a program that seeks to house the most vulnerable homeless individuals, Strengthening Homeless Coordination continues the county’s shift toward those unlikely to access services on their own.

As part of the county’s investment in the Cobb, SRHT moved all of the original Project 50 participants into the new building, along with their case managers and service providers. The shift of those 33 people also freed up space at other Trust buildings. Project 50 now has 68 people enrolled, House said.

House sees the county’s partnership with permanent supportive housing providers as its primary model moving forward for reaching the chronically homeless in Los Angeles.

“It is the Cadillac model,” she said.

After the funding puzzles and evolving strategies for combating homelessness, there are people like Cobb resident Patricia Garnett.

Garnett, 61, had also been at New Image. Before moving into the shelter more than two years ago, she was living with her mother, and had suffered several nervous breakdowns.

Arthritis in her back and legs makes it hard to walk and bend down, a problem at New Image, where residents sleep on cots that are low to the ground. At the Cobb, Garnett has her own apartment, cooks her own meals and, unlike at the shelter, doesn’t need help getting in and out of bed.

“It was hard laying on that cot for two years,” Garnett said. “The beds are high enough now.”

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.

page 6, 06/21/2010

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