Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Our stories continue this month with Garrett Dunbar, a former homeless services caseworker/staff member.
I first met Garrett five years ago while he was working as a caseworker for Mental Health America. I was immediately struck by his unwavering dedication to providing real help for our unhoused neighbors — one at a time. Interestingly, at that time, Shauna from last month’s article (“Same Themes, Different Stories,” SPT Feb. 2023) was part of his team’s caseload.
The world is small in this community — housed or unhoused. Even though he no longer works in homeless service delivery, he has recently been providing pro bono legal services to help Shauna as she navigates her eviction.
Sheikh: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Garrett Dunbar: Born and raised in the South Bay, I graduated from Peninsula High School. I went to El Camino College, where I met my wife, Chelsy, and then to UCLA. After that, I went to law school, then CSULB to earn my master’s in social work.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a beautician. I’ve always wanted to make people feel pretty and was constantly doing my mom’s hair and makeup growing up.
Growing up, what career did you want?
I was supposed to be a carbon copy of my dad, who is a lawyer, and any deviation from that was met with disapproval. I wanted to be a marine biologist/oceanographer, so I settled for an environmental law concentration instead.
Why did you become a caseworker?
In law school, I was searching for a purpose. While interning with Orange County Council, I had a front row seat to the homelessness crisis. More than 500 people were living outside that office.
After graduating from law school, I provided legal aid inside an emergency shelter where I saw how people with mental illness, physical disability, or substance use were often left behind. Using my positions of privilege to make tangible impacts in the lives of other people was important to me. So I completed a fellowship with Mental Health America of Los Angeles to become a mental health recovery specialist.
Can you describe a typical day for a caseworker?
Routine doesn’t exist. Our team was 100 percent mobile and most days started with someone in crisis — real or perceived — and you would be in triage.
We all wore many hats — outreach coordination, intensive case management, and legal support. A typical caseload for a non-intensive team is 25-49 people (higher if short-staffed, which is often the case). Our team worked with people living with serious mental illnesses, including major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and PTSD — many of whom also had physical illnesses or substance use.
Here is a snapshot of any given day:
- Go to Wilmington encampment to take a client to a doctor’s appointment.
- Meet an outreach worker from another agency at Harbor City encampment for a warm hand-off.
- Meet a client at San Pedro encampment to complete paperwork at DPSS.
- Search for clients who don’t have phones in different locations to connect them to needed services.
- Pick up a client who was discharged from the ER.
- Meet a client at a Torrance park to provide therapy while searching for units that accept their housing voucher.
What was the most challenging part of your job?
Limited resources. Not enough housing. Most appointments ended by dropping a client off at their tent, saying goodbye, and feeling helpless.
Why did you leave?
We only had one therapist, nurse, and prescriber with five case managers for 100 of the most vulnerable clients. Our team was given an impossible task and burned out trying to hit the agency’s productivity target. More than half of us were gone within a year, and the program shut down. Staff burnout and turnover are high.
What was the most fulfilling?
Getting to know people’s stories, acknowledging the difficulty of their journey, and walking alongside them to remind them how far they had come.
What’s one misconception about homelessness that you wish you could correct?
No one says, “When I grow up, I want to live on the sidewalk in a tent.” Many of the people on our streets are connected to services, and many have even been matched to vouchers — there is simply nowhere for people to exist while they are stuck waiting for the housing pipeline to become unclogged.
Less than 10 percent of people would say they are choosing this life. And for the majority of that small subset, it’s a story they’ve convinced themselves of to be more comfortable with their situation.
What’s the most significant change, on a large level, that needs to happen?
The average tenure of homeless service workers is about 18 months. Can you imagine if you had a different doctor or therapist every other year?
We need staff, but the way these services are funded prioritizes meeting billing goals, not providing care. Providers should be compensated based on the outcomes of services rather than the quantity of billable hours.
What is something that we can all do to help?
Special training isn’t needed to say hi to someone and look them in the eye, and keeping socks or feminine hygiene products in your car to hand out goes a long way. But the reality for myself, and the 63 percent of people paying rent in L.A., is that we are significantly closer to homelessness than home ownership. We need more people to get involved by joining a working group on homelessness to advocate for solutions in every backyard.
Garrett’s experience is shared by thousands of caseworkers working across our region daily. They are given the often-impossible task of finding people who have no home, building trust, and helping them navigate the complex system of services that entails dozens of departments and providers and hundreds of pages of forms. And they do it again every time there is staff turnover.
They navigate encampments and areas of the city many of us would not feel comfortable in and risk their lives and health. Garrett, who had a law degree, was making $21/hour at the time, which is on the high end of the compensation spectrum.
If you are interested in joining the CD15 Working Group on Homelessness, email email@example.com. spt