Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Just as the airplane flight attendant reminds us to put our own oxygen mask on before putting the mask on our child, if I do not take care of myself in this field of service, I will have nothing left to give others. He who burns the candle at both ends is not as bright as he thinks he is!
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ken Craft, CEO of Hope of The Valley Rescue Mission.
After spending many years in the non-profit and for-profit world, in 2009, Ken Craft started Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission. His goal from the beginning was to create a responsive organization to address the growing problem of hunger and homelessness in Los Angeles. Ken has guided the organization from infancy to a leading housing and homeless service agency. Currently, Hope of the Valley has over 220 employees and 17 site locations. Ken is passionate about his work and is known for his authentic and transparent leadership style. Ken is married and has 3 adult children.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
I grew up in Ventura California, a beach community 40 miles north of Los Angeles. Life was good for me as I enjoyed relative success in athletics and academics. My family was very religious, Christian Faith, and church life was a big part of my upbringing.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
Many people enter the world of social services thru the front door, majoring in social work. Not me….I came into it from the back door. In light of my religious upbringing, I went full time into pastoral ministry as a young man, first as a youth pastor then as a Senior Pastor. The church I started grew to well over 2,000 in attendance in 8 years. Then, I had my own broken world experience, went through a divorce and lost everything. I went from the Penthouse to the Doghouse. I was the young up and coming preacher, but due to moral failure I was ushered out the back door of the church and instructed not to come back. The experience was devastating, painful and profoundly impacted me. After that experience, with the accompanying feelings of shame and unworthiness, I gave up on helping people and living a life of public services until one day when I had lunch with a Rescue Mission Director and he asked me if I ever considered working with the poor and homeless. I told him NO as it was the last thing on my mind. But as we ate lunch that day surrounded by men who had failure, devastation and loss in their lives, I felt encouraged that maybe, just maybe I could be used to help give people a second chance in life. That was the beginning of my heart being turned to the outcast, the abandoned and marginalized. I slowly began to see life thru a new prism.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
The cost of living in our major metropolitan areas has skyrocketed out of control. In Los Angeles, the average 1 bedroom apartment costs 2,100 dollars. Many people are one paycheck away from being homeless. Spending 50% or more of your income on housing is not sustainable. Then, you throw in the lack of mental health facilities, domestic violence, lack of prison reform and re-entry from incarceration and the increase of methamphetamine and other drug use, you have a cocktail for a humanitarian crisis called homelessness.
For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?
The pathway into homelessness and the pathway out of homelessness is as varied as each individual experiencing homelessness. I remember one woman with two teenage daughters who became homeless after the home she was renting went into foreclosure. It was not only her home, but her place of business. She ran a daycare center from her home. She was in shock. She had consistently paid her rent, but the owners of the property were not using her rent to pay the mortgage and let the home go into foreclosure. The mother received an eviction notice and became homeless living in her car with her two teenage daughters for 6 months before they reached out to us for help. Another woman we recently helped had her house burn down and for 5 years she lived in her car before she entered our Tiny Home Community. Others live a more reckless life through addiction and the severing all family bridges of support. The most prevalent cause of homelessness is poverty, unemployment and the inability to afford a first month’s rent and security deposit against the background of a potential poor credit score.
A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me we should round up all the homeless people and have them live in the desert I would be a rich man. We must remember, people experiencing homelessness are people who have experienced tremendous amounts of trauma. Sending someone to an area they are unfamiliar with and telling them to “start over” is unrealistic and borderline inhumane. If it was such a great idea, surely we would have models of its success, but we don’t. In order for people to rise above their circumstances, they need a strong network of support. They need to be part of “their” community. Just outside of Los Angeles is the high desert communities of Palmdale and Lancaster. They have made it clear that shipping LA’s problem up to the high desert is not a viable solution. Instead of shuffling people from one community to the next, each community needs to provide systems and solutions to empower people to better their lives thru a livable wage, affordable housing and supportive services.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
I would ask them if they are open to receiving help and if they are, connect them to your local homeless service provider. In Los Angeles, anyone who is homeless, hungry or in crisis, can call 211 and access resources and organizations that specialize in meeting their needs.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
I recommend that people carry Care Packets in their car consisting of a water bottle, granola bars, dried fruits and nuts with a card and phone number to the nearest housing and homeless service provider. I personally do not recommend giving homeless people money.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
Eleven years ago when I started Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, other than the four month Cold Weather Shelter, there was virtually no shelter beds available for the then nearly 6,000 homeless people in the San Fernando Valley. The mindset was that people should go to Skid Row, Downtown Los and Angeles, and get help. Now, Hope of the Valley operates 10 Interim Housing facilities for youth, families, men and women in the San Fernando Valley sheltering over 570 people each night. By the end of 2021, that number will increase to over 1,100 people being housed each night. Our end game is not merely to shelter people. Our success is measured by the number of people who are permanently housed and stay housed!
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
Covid-19 has had a severe impact on the homeless community. Our congregant shelters have been hit especially hard. Even with our best efforts to socially distance, wear masks, hand wash and provide testing, we have had many Covid outbreaks. Positive tests at a shelter are exceptionally hard on clients as our sites are required by the Department of Public Health to go into lock down. That means that clients are not allowed to come and go and leave as they please. Instead, clients are locked down at a single site for 14 days. Such limitations do not work well with people suffering from mental illness or trauma. Oftentimes, many of our clients leave the shelters during lock down because they cannot handle the restrictions. Those outside of the shelters have not fared much better due to unsanitary conditions and lack of hygiene facilities at encampments.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Nothing makes me prouder than when a client breaks free from addiction, becomes employed and permanently housed. Recently I was talking to a gentleman in our newly opened NoHo Shelter. I asked him what his story was. He told me that he was a baseball coach at a local high school, he worked in animation, owned a home in the Valley, was married with two children. He lost his job, went through a divorce and became homeless. While on the streets he was introduced to crystal meth. For 2 years he chased the drug. He became an addict and was sure he would die on the streets. Once we opened the NoHo Shelter, an outreach worker brought him to us. He was at the end of himself. While at the shelter, he detoxed, his hope was renewed and he began to think clearly. After a couple months, he knocked on every door in the industrial complex where the shelter is located until someone hired him. He was employed, worked each day, saved his money and left the shelter for permanent housing. Now that is why I get up each morning! People need a hand up not a hand out….they need to be empowered not enabled!
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
Earlier this year I cracked my tooth while eating. I called my dentist for an emergency appointment and he notified me that he was no longer practicing dentistry. So, he gave me the name of a friend who was taking his patients. I went to go see this new dentist. As I was checking in and filling out paperwork, the lady behind the desk asked me if ran a shelter for homeless families. Not really feeling like conversing because of my pain, I told her yes. She smiled and said, “I have always hoped that someday I would see you again. You took me, my husband and two daughters into your shelter eight years ago. It was a devastating time for us. We had lost everything yet you opened your arms without judgment and took us in.” She went on to tell me that both of her daughters were in college, her husband had a good job, as did she, and they were eternally grateful for all the Mission had done for them. With my tooth throbbing I asked her for a picture telling her that seldom do I get to see the long-term fruit of our labors.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
People who genuinely care about the homeless crisis can give their TIME, TALENT and TREASURE or said another way, their WISDOM, WEALTH or WORK. Amazing things happen when we take the time to get to know someone who is homeless. Oftentimes, people live in fear of the homeless as if they are sub-human. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are people like you and me who have fallen on hard times. Imagine what the world would be like if we embraced our brothers and sister in need instead of shunning them. Every day I see hero’s who teach classes for our clients, mentor those in need and financially give generously. I am reminded of an LA based company, Beachbody Inc. who is offering each of their three hundred employees 3 paid days to volunteer at the Mission. Amazing!
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
- We as a society, health care professionals, must have the right to conserve people that are severely mentally ill living on the streets. It is inhumane to allow people to defecate on themselves and sit on park benches in a perpetual state of incoherency.
- Mandate that every community provide services for their homeless. Many hands make light work and no community is “too good” that they cannot and should not help share the burden.
- Mandate drug diversion programs in our corrective institutions for substance abuse offenders.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
I derive ultimate satisfaction and pleasure knowing that I am living a life of purpose. Someone once said that there are three levels of living, Survival, Success and Significance. The work that we do is not about success, in the normal metrics of success…what we do is about significance…. Living a life of purpose and meaning, empowering others to transform their lives.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
I think there will always be a percentage of people that are shelter resistant, or are not yet ready to receive help. I put that number around 15%. The other 85% are people, if given the opportunity and resources, would accept the hand up and work to reform their lives. America is a great nation. When we set our minds to doing great things, we get things done. Homelessness is a national emergency and will require a national coordinated response. When JFK said we would put a man on the moon, we did. We need leaders who will stand up today and say, “we are better than this. We WILL put an end to hunger and homelessness in America”.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Even while doing good, there will be plenty of people who do not appreciate your efforts, do good anyway. Kites fly highest against the wind!
- Don’t overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in 10 years. The mighty oak tree was a little nut who refused to give up his ground. Determination and persistence go a long way in creating lasting change.
- If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. Make sure you build your team. It takes Teamwork to make the Dreamwork. I don’t have to be an expert at everything, but I must be willing to surround myself with people who are!
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Just as the airplane flight attendant reminds us to put our own oxygen mask on before putting the mask on our child, if I do not take care of myself in this field of service, I will have nothing left to give others. He who burns the candle at both ends is not as bright as he thinks he is!
- Do the good work and good people will support you. In this field it is easy to worry about money. Homeless services is expensive. Each of our sites is a 24/365 operation with security, food services, hygiene and supportive services costs. I have been blown away at the kindness and generosity of people who genuinely care and support the work of the Mission.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Nothing great happens in life without sacrifice and effort. We cannot continue to put the same effort into solving homeless and expect better results. We need to declare war on poverty and homelessness in the US. For just one year, let’s take 20% of our Military Budget and allocate it to building permanent affordable housing, interim housing, mental health facilities and prison reform.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When all is said and done, make sure more is done than said.” There is nothing worse than the paralysis of analysis. You can only say “Ready Aim” for so long. Eventually you have to say, “FIRE”. At Hope of the Valley, we have made our fair share of mistakes, failure to launch has not been one of them!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Elon Musk …. He seems fearless in his willingness to innovate and solve real world problems.
How can our readers follow you online?
Facebook: @kencraft @hopeofthevalley
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!