The parallels between caring for nature and helping the homeless can’t be ignored

By Julia Lee

The author is a Venice resident who leads writing workshops with homeless youth. Her husband is Tod Lipka, CEO of the Santa Monica nonprofit mental health organization Step Up On Second.

A Western Snowy Plover, protected by the  Endangered Species Act, darts along the shore  on Dockweiler Beach Photo by Ted Soqui

A Western Snowy Plover, protected by the Endangered Species Act, darts along the shore on Dockweiler Beach
Photo by Ted Soqui

Saturday’s 2nd annual Bird LA Day is fast approaching. Forget about movie stars for a day; the real stars are the birds. With our diverse ecosystems of mountains, wetlands, deserts and shoreline we are home to 264 bird species — more than any other place in the United States.  We’re “America’s Birdiest County,” according to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

But Bird LA Day got me thinking about more than birds. It got me thinking about our homeless neighbors.

“It’s odd. Birds are everywhere but we don’t really see them,” said my husband, who works for a mental health organization serving homeless individuals. And why is that? “We don’t know what kind they are, we don’t know their songs, and they move so fast, often they are hard to see.”

The more we discussed birds, the more I was struck by the parallels to homelessness.

As with birds, at times I confess I don’t see homeless people even though I hold writing workshops for homeless youth in Hollywood. The class said to me recently they wanted to write about things they see on the streets every day, like trees, since that’s where they spend most of their time. We had done some writing on sidewalks, and that generated intense and creative writing. I envision equally strong writing about trees, homes to birds all around us and a metaphor for homes needed by homeless youth.

It’s clear that both birders and homelessness advocates are working on the same important things in L.A. County. Annual counts for birds, annual counts for homeless. Homes (habitats) for birds, homes for homeless — particularly the chronically homeless like many of our veterans. Care for sick birds, care for mentally ill homeless.

We erect safeguards for birds to protect them from predators and development. California has 33 species and subspecies of birds listed as either threatened or endangered by California or the federal government.

The homeless also need safeguards like support services to keep them safe, out of jails and to assist with recovery. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority’s 2015 homeless count, we have 44,359 homeless individuals in the county.

Although Los Angeles is obsessed with beautiful stars, for birds it’s not just the pretty ones that matter. I discovered that last year, at the inaugural Bird LA Day. My husband and I spent the afternoon at Malibu State Park with the Audubon Society and about 100 other Angelenos.

“I didn’t realize we were looking for all birds, not just unusual or special ones,” he said afterwards.

I laughed, but thought how true. Who are we to value one bird over the other? Who are we to judge a homeless person over others?

Many of us set up bird feeders in our yards for the pleasure and enjoyment of seeing birds up close. Many with good intentions feed the homeless, working directly with them up close. But we’re fortunate to have research now to steer our policies toward making real progress in solving homelessness, particularly for the chronically homeless with mental illness.

We now know it’s about first and foremost providing housing with supportive services so recovery has a chance to follow. My husband knows the facts. He says data shows that society saves a lot by providing homes first. A homeless person living on the street can cost taxpayers between $25,000 and $125,000 per year, but in housing the cost is only $8,000 to $23,000.

I hope everyone gets the chance to celebrate Bird LA Day. The birds won’t disappoint. And thanks to the birds I’m reminded that the homeless desperately need our attention. In the case of the homeless, no binoculars are needed.

Click here for more information on Bird LA Day.