Q: Imagine LA focuses specifically on family homelessness. Why is that?
Early on, we realized that was the niche where we could make a difference. Families are not the picture we have in our mind when we think of homelessness. They’re the hidden homeless. They’re in cars, in shelters, doubling up, couch-surfing, or crammed in a single motel room. There are multiple drivers of family homelessness, but most often it’s severe poverty. A family that’s struggling to get by is hit with one more thing—a car repair, medical bill, job loss, and/or fleeing domestic violence—and they’re homeless.
In doing our homework to figure out precisely where Imagine LA might fit, we found families were getting help in shelters, but once they transitioned out there was no further support. When they did manage to get housing often it was in a new neighborhood with no community. They were still poor, they still had struggles and trauma, and it was very easy for the cycle to repeat itself. Imagine LA’s big vision is to figure out how to end family homelessness and generational poverty.
Q: What does the engagement with families look like?
Our idea was to find a way to come alongside families, build human relationships, and create a safe space for hopes and dreams to grow and the potential of every member of a family to be nurtured. To do that, we focus on housing and all the other pieces that let a family have stability. In some cases, we help with housing. We have a building now that has 73 families in it. We work with them to ensure the kids are in school and have what they need to flourish. Anyone who needs mental health support gets it. If someone needs a job or training, we work with them on that.
We work together with families intensively for about two years. Everything’s centered in love. My personal mission statement is, “I’m a love-spreading difference maker.” We started working with 3 families and now we’re up to almost 300 families a year. For the last 15 years, Imagine LA has been a lab—we’ve just kept learning and iterating. We started with basic case managers. Then we went to full social workers. We made sure we had tons of resources around mental health, tons of resources around trauma, because so many families had experienced domestic violence and the process of becoming unhoused and surviving is traumatic. One thing that hasn’t changed is building everything around the idea of “together.”
Q: Mentors are a big part of Imagine LA’s model. How does it work?
Once the family has some stability, we bring in mentors for every member of the family over five. We’re bringing relationships to people, rather than have them feel like “others.” The idea is everybody is in it—and human—together.
Mentors, who are trained and guided by a family team manager, meet with a mentee at least once a month, and touch base every week. The families, mentors, and staff work hard together, so we also have “Family Fun Events” that range from an old-fashioned carnival to a back-to-school picnic with music and games. The picnic is also a chance for kids to get cool backpacks stuffed with school supplies and haircuts.
Something that I think is really important is that as mentors spend time with families, there’s this shift that happens, often around the year mark, where they go from seeing themselves as helpers to seeing the person they’re mentoring as a hero. “Oh my God, Maria is my hero. I can’t believe what she goes through, how she’s surviving and keeping her family together.” They’ve learned what it’s like to navigate poverty.
We say we’re a whole-family holistic program. The three legs to our stool are case management, mentorship, and economic mobility.
Q: What’s involved in the economic mobility piece?
There’s an element of simple math here. If you’re a single mom trying to get out of the public benefits system, you need childcare and work that pays a living wage, not minimum wage. So, we did research with the Department of Labor and came up with 14 high-demand jobs that were viable for single parents and for the education levels typical of the people we serve. Then we talked with our families to ask, “Which of these are actually something you would want to do?” From that we narrowed to eight career pathways. Then we developed training tracks for each. Recently we added a ninth track for entrepreneurship.
We’re really committed to meeting people where they’re at. Time and again we see the impossible choices people are faced with. You have to have that on-the-ground perspective to understand the issues.
Once parents have jobs and childcare, we provide financial fitness workshops on topics like budgeting, credit repair, and how to navigate the banking system. Really basic stuff. Really important stuff. And with the job and childcare pieces in place, parents really engage with the financial fitness. “Wait, I need to know this stuff.”
The workshops are led by professionally trained people with lived experience. And they are followed by one-on-one coaching. Bringing together jobs that pay a living wage, childcare, and financial fitness is really impactful. There’s a sense of agency. “This could work. I can start to see it.”
Like everything else, the way we teach financial fitness has evolved over time. At one point we tried to teach budgeting with the volunteer mentors. When they tried to help the families navigate public benefits and make decisions about jobs, mentors kept coming back saying, “We can’t figure this out. This isn’t making sense.” That was because it didn’t make sense. Case managers who work with the public benefit system all the time kept trying to go to the different agencies and figure it out. They just couldn’t. That’s because the system is a black box.
Q: You partnered with academics to make sense of the black box. What led to that work?
Our work with families has a human cadence. We’re really committed to meeting people where they’re at. As a result, time and again we see the impossible choices people are faced with. You have to have that on-the-ground perspective to understand the issues.
At the same time, we wanted to take on the system issues. So we raised some money from the Carl and Roberta Deutsch Foundation, we partnered with USC Price Center for Social Innovation, and we went deep on the systemic drivers of what these families are facing.
We dove into all the major public benefits available in Los Angeles County—federal, state, and local as well as tax credits. The key takeaway from the report: “Oh my God, people need help navigating this.” The system is broken. Navigating social benefits is so complicated that many people don’t get the benefits they deserve. There’s no transparency, which creates fear, which acts as a work disincentive. The safety net doesn’t catch people; it also does not act a springboard out of poverty. People fall through into homelessness. And those who are caught by the safety net regularly get stuck in it.
Q: Why is the system broken?
The social safety net is broken because you’ve got siloed systems. Food assistance comes from the Department of Agriculture. Housing stuff comes from HUD. Health and Human Services offers another set of services. Then you’ve got state programs. Then you’ve got local programs. Everybody’s trying to do good, but there’s no coordination, so the way each program is administered ends up unwittingly impacting others.
There are benefit cliffs, which are when you earn a dollar over a threshold and lose $300 in benefits. There are also benefit plateaus, which is when you earn a raise of $1 an hour and you lose the same amount in benefits. Where’s the incentive there?
Having benefit cliffs and benefit plateaus is problematic. Worse—and the reason families have so much fear—is that you can’t know in advance when there’s a benefit cliff or plateau. Think about that: there’s no way for a family or a case manager who’s helping that family to actually know what’s going to happen if their wages go up. There’s no way to know what will happen to their benefits if they enter a training program that will eventually put them in a position to earn more.
It took us years, a lot of grant funding, and many partners with deep expertise to understand how these programs fit together and interact with each other. It’s not reasonable to expect families or individuals experiencing poverty to be able to do that.
Q: The result of all this is the Social Benefit Navigator. Would you explain what the app you’re developing does?
The Social Benefit Navigator is three things. First, it’s an information hub. We hired researchers and writers to boil everything down for all 12 of the major federal, state, and local public benefits available in LA County. The hub explains what each one is, how it works, the documentation required, and a link to apply. It also explains the five most important tax credits. The information hub makes everything simple and clear. It also puts everything in one place.
Second, there’s a tool to maximize your benefits. By filling in some basic information—nothing more private than zip code—it calculates exactly what you are eligible for with links to apply
Third, there’s a tool to do scenarios. What if someone in your household makes more? It will show you exactly what it does to your benefits. What if you want to do a training program that will mean you temporarily earn less? The Social Benefits Navigator will tell them how that will impact their benefits. It gives them a chance to look forward to see that the new career track will be a path to independence.
Additional planned features of the app include adding benefits for specific populations—for example—transitioning foster youth, veterans, formerly incarcerated, immigrants and refugees—and an AI-powered “Ideal Wage” calculator that will also link users with potential Living Wage Career Pathways. It will also show the economic barriers to getting there and provide data for navigating those barriers—creating true pathways and showing the ROI to the government for helping fuel it.
Q: What stage is the app at?
Right now, we’re piloting a minimal viable product. It’s designed for mobile and desktop. It’s in English and Spanish and is compatible with a Google translation bot for other languages. It’s designed for both the end user and case managers.
For now, we’re piloting it with case managers so we can keep a controlled environment. The pilot includes 10 different government and nonprofit agencies that serve different populations. We’re not going to release it broadly until it’s fully refined, but when it is, it isn’t just for families coming out of homelessness; it’s for anybody in poverty, period. There are on the order of 1.5 million to 2 million people living in poverty in LA County, and our goal is to make it 100% accessible to anyone who might need it.
Q: The Social Benefit Navigator helps make sense of the way the system currently works. But there are still benefit cliffs and plateaus.
Definitely. We’ve also got to have policy change because the system is so broken. And the Navigator can help with that. The data will be anonymized, but it will let us move beyond the anecdotal information we have about how people use social benefits. We’re going to learn where the incentives created by our existing benefits mean it doesn’t make sense to take a job or accept a raise. Then we’re going to be able to bring that data to the policy world.
We’ve co-founded a collaborative called the Public Benefit Impact Alliance with REDF, ALLHOME, USC, the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, United Way of California, Policy Engine and a growing number of nonprofits and advocacy organizations across California that are dedicated to ending poverty through a policy/public benefits lens. This group is our think tank to help us take this data and really work to change the system. I’m just super excited about it.
Q: Where do you see all of this going in the next few years?
I’m transitioning out of the CEO role for Imagine LA. We have a new CEO coming in who will be able to bring the organization to the next level. The model is to do intensive, holistic, humane, and values-driven work with each family. Imagine LA can grow to work with more families, but the way to really scale the model is to teach and share it with organizations across the country.
As Yale SOM showed me so long ago, being smart and hardworking only goes so far; collaborative work is where innovation happens. I want everybody at the table because that’s how we’re going to change stuff—together.
Similarly, the Social Benefit Navigator has a modular design—it can be customized for anywhere. It can go nationwide. We want this to be a tool to help youth, seniors, adults. We want it to give people agency. We want it to help change policy and public benefits governance.
Q: What would it take to get all of these different federal, state, and local agencies to coordinate and deliver better social benefits and better incentives?
Fixing it would require getting all the siloed aspects of the public benefits system to collaborate and then creating a governance structure to ensure that they continue to do so. It can happen if, first, we have the common mission of ending homelessness, generational poverty, and helping people flourish; second, we are armed with the right data and analytical tools; and, third, we empower leadership.
The supports from the programs should provide a safety net and the incentives should offer a springboard to independence. That’s what families want. That’s what everybody wants. Delivering that would be a fantastic ROI for the government. But to get there will require a lot of leaders taking risks and being visionary to work together across agencies and levels of government. I think it’s going to take a while, but I think it can happen if we have a clear vision and work together.
As Yale SOM showed me so long ago, being smart and hardworking only goes so far; collaborative work is where innovation happens. I want to get people in a room together. I never want to be the smartest person in that room. I want experts. I want people with lived experience. I want everybody at the table because that’s how we’re going to change stuff—together.