Heroes of the Homeless Crisis: How Evonne Biggs of Venice Family Clinic is helping to support some of the most vulnerable people in our communities

December 11, 2022

Originally published in Authority Magazine

By: Fotis Georgiadis

Evonne Biggs currently serves as the Program Manager for Homeless Services and Health Equity at Venice Family Clinic, a nonprofit community health center that provides care to over 45,000 people at 17 sites across the greater Los Angeles area, where she is responsible for the development, implementation and overall performance of the clinic’s homeless program, including its three mobile clinics and nine street medicine teams that deliver care directly to unhoused patients regardless of location.

Her educational background includes a Master of Public Health from California State University, Northridge, where her curiosity for identifying the root of health disparities among the most vulnerable began. Evonne has experience in providing direct care to families experiencing homelessness and previously served as a supervisor in the single adult interim housing and engagement service areas.

Evonne values serving as a catalyst for systemic change at the intersection of homelessness and healthcare, by both participating in and facilitating collaborative efforts with people who provide direct care, community partners and representatives of local government.

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 am the eldest of my siblings, born in Los Angeles, California. I spent most of my childhood in the rural area of northern Los Angeles County. I grew up with quite a few household pets and animals throughout my childhood, but my favorite were our horses. I’m slowly but surely getting back to the groove of horseback riding, as it is my happy place.

While our family of six didn’t live close to many of our extended family, we were faithful churchgoers. The folks we worshipped with every week became our family. I was introduced to people who continue to be in my life and heart to this very day. These people had a tremendous impact on my life in my formative years. I would say this church family was my introduction to the concept of interconnectedness and the importance of community support. Although my beliefs and practices have changed over time, I attribute my introduction to faith as a foundation to who I am and how I show up.

The most memorable parts of my childhood were the summer road trips I would take with my grandmother, her sisters and cousin to visit my great grandmother and extended family in Birmingham, Alabama. Exposure to the culture of southern hospitality and our rich family history made a lasting impact on my life. Although I was born and raised in Southern California, my grandmother’s southern roots are a part of my being. I think the time spent with these elders may have something to do with the “old soul” some recognize in me.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

I was inspired by my Master of Public Health programming in graduate school. My curiosity deepened as we delved into investigating root causes of our health and social welfare outcomes. During the same time, I observed the community in which I lived. It was generally considered affluent but had plenty of areas where folks lived with less. When you walked the streets, there was a clear distinction between the haves and have nots. I continued to be curious about signs of increasing poverty that I witnessed in such a seemingly affluent area.

During my last year of graduate school, I took a grant writing elective that allowed me to dig into history of how the local community approached homelessness and the model of service. While I was curious about the activity in my environment, I also reflected on the complexity of navigating my own personal housing insecurity challenges despite having access to community support. My faith foundation reminded me of my responsibility to serve and do good. It was at that point when my mind shifted to wanting to help find a sustainable solution.

After finishing graduate school, I decided to take my newfound public health knowledge to the social service sector. I knew I wanted to design and implement programs and inform policy, but to do that I needed to understand what was happening on the front lines. I was blessed to be given the opportunity to understand the complex world of families who were experiencing homelessness and assist those in need. When I began my work at Venice Family Clinic, I was able to take what I learned from within the social service sector to establish the Clinic’s existing homeless services infrastructure. Although homeless services were by no means new to the Clinic, this experience helped me and my wonderful colleagues build sustainable structures that support the hardworking staff who treat and help patients experiencing homelessness.

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?

At Venice Family Clinic, we take pride in the high quality comprehensive health care that we provide to families and individuals who might otherwise go without the care they need. 64% of our patients live below the federal poverty line, and we have pioneered a robust street medicine program featuring nine teams and three mobile clinics that treat people experiencing homelessness by delivering care directly to where it is needed.

While it is tempting to discuss the causes on a local or even individual level, I think it’s important to first explore the root causes of homelessness across America. I’m reminded about an experience from my childhood that might serve as a helpful metaphor: When I was younger, my brother and I were expected to tend to our front and back yard nearly every Saturday morning. My primary role was to pull weeds, and I hated it with a passion — eventually learning how to cook breakfast just to avoid this chore. And I learned that some tools made it easier to remove the visible weeds without getting my hands dirty, and that helped get me back inside faster.

Despite these handy tools, the weeds would quickly return, ready for me to struggle with them the next week. It didn’t take long to realize that the real solution to preventing this overgrowth was to attack the source of the issue — the roots themselves. So, I got down in the dirt, got my hands dirty and dug up the roots entirely.

This metaphor can be a helpful tool to understand homelessness: Where we find latent discriminatory practices, injustice is usually not far away. While stagnant wages, lack of affordable housing, mental illness and substance use are all key factors involved in homelessness, I would also point to a history of the general lack of equitable investment in all people. We need to recognize our nation’s history of discriminatory housing practices and redlining, which historically occurred nationwide and has evolved into questionable redistricting practices even today. These root injustices affect access to quality education, employment and even access to high-quality healthcare — something that we pride ourselves on providing to Venice Family Clinic’s patients, regardless of creed, income or immigration status.

As a society, I believe we have done more reacting to the homeless crisis than responding. While it is important to appreciate progress we’ve made to this point, we must also recognize that we have a long way to go as a society. We must continue to address immediate needs, but we must also be mindful in practically addressing long-term causes and consequences of the homelessness crisis. It is a balancing act: reacting is natural but responding is sustainable. Responding requires preparation and strategy. It also requires us to listen to, involve and properly compensate people with lived experience so we can make informed decisions and determine root causes.

At Venice Family Clinic, we try to respond to these root causes by providing quality healthcare to those in need in ways that address the whole person. We tend to our patients’ medical and behavioral health needs, whether in the clinic, on the street or in a shelter. We also provide connections to community resources and housing through our community partners, healthy food distributions to local communities through our health education programming and early child education for children and families of children 0–3 through our Early Head Start programming.

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?

At Venice Family Clinic, we serve about 45,000 people each year — 91% of whom live below 200% of the federal poverty line and almost 5,000 of whom are experiencing homelessness. As the Clinic’s Program Manager for Homeless Services and Health Equity, I have found that one of the major challenges to addressing homelessness is that there is no typical progression. There are so many layers associated with how someone ends up sleeping in their car or on the sidewalk. I have encountered people experiencing homelessness who at one time had more wealth than I may ever see, and I have sat with people who have had the same experiences as me and just so happened to land in a different place. I oftentimes ask myself, why not me?

When I think of homelessness, my mind returns to the concept of root causes. I think about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), defined as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0–17 years), the importance of healthy connections and the ability to rethink existing systems. As I reflect on my own story and hundreds more I have heard from people without a stable home, common themes appear: The need for access to tools to be successful in life and the connections that support healing and help people address their root issues.

Some who have high exposure to ACEs may find themselves in despair despite access to tools that support a healthy lifestyle (great education, material wealth, loving family and friends, etc.) because they were isolated from supporting connections and did not have the opportunity to do the hard work of addressing roots of harm they experienced. Others may have those connections but lack the proper tools to succeed.

While not everyone without these tools and connections will end up experiencing homelessness, it is clear to me that there is a direct correlation. There are times where the tools help us chop away at the weeds enough to present well, but the root issues were ignored and kept growing so that there was no way to sustain a healthy lifestyle. And without the proper tools to empower growth, those connections may still not be enough.

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?

Many people ask this question with good intentions, but I find that we often miss the opportunity to ask through the lens of equity. Under our current climate, cheaper housing often correlates with less available resources to help stabilize and support folks who are just coming out of homelessness.

For people who have recently experienced homelessness, there is often an adjustment, and sometimes even grief, associated with moving away from social support. This could contribute to having another experience with homelessness at worse, and difficulty in adjusting and accessing much needed resources at best. Social support and equitable access to resources are vital, so cheaper housing in and of itself doesn’t always solve for everything.

Housing is crucial to our health and ability to thrive, but so is the quality of the larger environment and community that surrounds the place where one lives. Ideally, we want to create an environment that makes room for individuals to self-determine and tap into their own values as they work with the social service professionals to exit from homelessness.

When I was a Housing Navigator for a previous organization, there was a concerted effort to have people move to the Antelope Valley because it was cheaper to live there. This was no malicious act, and not unique to this organization, but it was a solution made with limited options and not enough consideration for the local environment — what we call a ‘community health assessment.’ What wasn’t considered was the lack of available resources for those people to continue care with their existing healthcare team, inadequate transportation to attend important appointments, school and work and limited access to schools with adequate resources for students. So yes, the housing was cheaper, but for many people it was not the healthiest move.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

I would encourage people to practice empathy and be willing to safely acknowledge our unhoused neighbors. I know from personal experience that a simple smile goes a long way, and I will always engage if a conversation is started. My daughter is involved in a club at her school which creates hygiene packets. She makes sure I have hygiene packets with a flyer with resources listed in my car, so we can hand them out if needed.

For people experiencing homelessness who need access to quality health care and lack money or insurance, we welcome them to contact Venice Family Clinic. We have 17 brick-and-mortar locations across Los Angeles with 500+ staff members and almost 1400 volunteers, as well as nine street medicine teams and three mobile outreach clinics. At Venice Family Clinic, we see almost 5,000 patients experiencing homelessness annually, and we are always here to help however we can — whether that is through direct medical care and counseling, medical and housing referrals or even if you just need someone to talk to.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

If a person has the means to give cash, and this action is consistent with their values, then giving money is great. I believe in the effectiveness of mutual aid and communal care, having personally benefitted from both, and I will be forever thankful my community was able to assist.

On a larger scale, as a society we must make it a priority to address the complexities of financial insecurity and homeless prevention. I believe the knowledge and experience of community organizations offering these resources, like Venice Family Clinic, will be invaluable to helping those experiencing homelessness access the wraparound services they need.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

I know that my work overseeing projects that improve access to quality healthcare to people experiencing homelessness has an impact, and I understand the importance of having basic needs met in a way that allows for services to be delivered with dignity. Projects that I oversee, like building customized mobile clinics, allows patients better access to care while making room for clinicians to engage with their patients’ complex needs in meaningful ways. Another example, Venice Family Clinic’s street medicine training program and curriculum, has helped educate residents, medical students and healthcare professionals across the nation on best practices in treating and helping our unhoused neighbors. With the help of Clinic partners and using the knowledge I’ve gained from professional and personal experience, I work to update patient care operations, inform advocacy opportunities and continuously improve our Clinic’s high standard of care for all of our patients — regardless of their housing status.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

I often refer to 2020 as the year of vision. While there has been so much misfortune throughout the pandemic, I believe the silver lining is that we have been given a glimpse of what must be done differently. The pandemic caused immense suffering, but it also shone a light on growing health and social inequities along with lack of safe and affordable housing nationwide — factors that significantly impact and contribute to people experiencing homelessness.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Venice Family Clinic never closed. Instead, with the help of telehealth and our resourceful staff, we made significant updates to the Clinic’s infrastructure to meet the needs of our patients. This included using telemedicine to diagnose and treat patients, providing pop-up and mobile COVID tests and vaccines, and addressing social determinants of health beyond COVID-19 by hosting food drives and working with partners to identify housing for those without. This has been a natural evolution in Venice Family Clinic’s mission to treat our patients as a whole person by taking care of needs that go beyond basic medical care.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Although most of my current work is behind the scenes, I am most proud when I can see how the work has impacted the people we strive to serve. I recently ran into a former program participant of mine who had previously experienced homelessness. Being able to have a candid conversation with this person who is now housed, and especially seeing their children thrive, was such an uplifting moment. We talked about the challenges we both faced as they relied on me to assist with navigating their experience with homelessness and their journey to secure permanent housing. They explained to me how helpful it was to have access to supportive services at the time. In addition to securing a place to live, those services allowed them to reconnect with their community, expanded their social support and helped introduce them to new ways of thinking and being.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

I can recall an individual patient whose needs I helped address during my time providing direct services. Together, this experience and this person encouraged me to work more closely at the intersection of healthcare and homelessness. The individual was a parent who reentered the coordinated entry system, or the network that aligns homeless services in Los Angeles County, on multiple occasions. They regularly experienced housing and employment instability and had a challenging relationship with the other parent of her children.

During a scheduled session, the patient revealed she was expecting another child. She said she felt some shame in this declaration, as it appeared that each time she returned, there was another addition to the family. I took a deeper dive into the intake questions about previous healthcare interactions and current connections and discovered the patient did not have adequate health coverage and very little access to reproductive healthcare. I shared a nearby community health center’s information and helped connect the patient to supportive medical and behavioral health services. After a series of health center visits, the patient was able to engage in creating a housing plan and meet the goals she set to safely house her family. She continued to work with case managers to assist her family in stabilizing in their new home. That small, extra step I took helped ensure this patient was able to address her most basic needs with dignity and put her on a pathway to creating a better quality of life for herself and her children.

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?

First, I encourage people to do a heart scan. I believe an invitation to open your heart will eventually lead to changed minds. A regular examination and critique of one’s values can keep us grounded, and hopefully help us understand how we can contribute to fixing this crisis.

When I think about root causes of homelessness, I think about the need for shared equitable power. I would encourage communities to examine the ways in which they are complicit in upholding systems of oppression. These oppressive systems leave one unimaginative and unable to dream dreams outside of the structures built for them. As I reflect on my own experiences, I would compare this to the hard work of kneeling to the ground in the garden and digging up roots with our hands, as opposed to using tools to temporarily paper over the problem.

Lastly, I would encourage communities to support advocacy efforts that promote affordable housing solutions and the overall health of the communities in which they live.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

Expand protections from discriminatory practices as outlined in our Fair Housing Act and ensure that safe and healthy housing be formally recognized as a human right.

Ensure equitable access to health care, which includes access to skilled nursing facilities and specialty treatment accommodations, through a healthy balance of private and public resources that are responsibly regulated.

Expand Medi-Cal’s and Medicaid’s respective abilities to ensure reimbursement for nontraditional delivery of care, including important services like street medicine.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

When I was providing direct services to people experiencing homelessness, I came to realize that I had the heart for the work that I was doing but not the stomach. I had to tap into understanding my unique talents, and I realized that working towards self-actualization is a major part of what keeps me doing this work. Most importantly, I ground myself in a “love ethic.” One of my favorite authors, Gloria Jean Watkins who also goes by her pen name “bell hooks,” defines this love ethic as utilizing all dimensions of love including care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect and knowledge.

I feel a responsibility to make positive and sustainable changes for communities in need, and a personal responsibility to care and have respect for fellow human beings. Although it is sometimes a heavy lift, I commit myself to be a lifelong learner. I believe it is important to evolve our thinking by constantly learning and adapting as circumstances change. There are always new ways of being and new ways of doing to be discovered. That simple fact keeps me going and gives me the hope needed to continue to work to improve the world around me.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I do believe the challenge of homeless has potential to be solved completely. At minimum, I believe we can both achieve and maintain “Functional Zero,” or the point when a community’s homeless services system is able to prevent homelessness whenever possible and ensure that when homelessness does occur, it is rare, brief and one-time.

However, there are times when I question whether my hopes are too lofty. For positive change to be sustained, there will need to be a complete change of hearts and minds. While I would like to remain systems focused, I believe it will take all of us as a collective to be brave enough to examine, uproot and rebuild equitable systems. That is a heavy lift, but I believe it can be done. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it can be made possible if the foundational work is done now.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Having the heart to serve is oftentimes not enough, you also must have the stomach for this work. I have the heart of a helper, but I wish I was prepared for the challenges and energy exchange that often occurred as I stepped into another person’s world. Sometimes it was too much, and I found myself ill-equipped to walk alongside a person whose burdens were so heavy. If I had originally approached my work with this mentality, I would have entered my current career path as a program manager and thought leader sooner and been better able to provide guidance that enhances the delivery of care.

Eventually, you will see yourself in those who you serve. This will be your opportunity to look away from the mirror or continue to explore your own path, privileges and vulnerabilities. I thought I knew how vulnerable I was to circumstance and environment before I began my work, but the more people I engaged with the more I realized it. Throughout my work, I met people with similar experiences who took far different paths. To this day, I continue to explore the factors that create different outcomes between patients so that we can better learn how to proactively assist those in need.

Establish strong boundaries and prioritize both self and communal care. This should have been a given, but I did not understand personal boundaries early on and my self-care was subpar. I came in as the helper, the giver, a mother and with the baggage of the older child syndrome. There is so much information out now around best practices for those in helping professions. However, this is one area I wish I would have grasped earlier on.

It is important to “tune” your voice for the appropriate audience: As one example, some people may not understand that dark humor often serves as a coping mechanism for healthcare workers. Those who know me intimately know that I can be extremely goofy and will rarely pass up a good laugh. Often, I laugh to keep from crying when I work. Selectively engaging with people who have a fully intact sense of humor, despite their unfortunate situations, allows me to connect with them effortlessly, but it doesn’t always translate well to the general population. I have learned to tune, or adapt, my voice to better communicate with different audiences and care for individual patients depending on their needs and sensitivities.

While it may be challenging, you don’t have to accept that working in homeless services is a Sisyphean task. We must maintain hope that we will one day create a fully functional system that is successfully designed to ease and eliminate suffering. The daily work to get there is often a challenge, but I remind myself daily not to accept the status quo and I believe that my work is a piece of the puzzle in creating more equitable systems. 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.

I would propose that each community participate in coordinated efforts to address the needs of their neighbors experiencing homelessness, right where they are. These communities would be filled with people who have embraced a change of perspective, and an open heart as to who they consider their neighbor. No more pushing people out because they no longer fit in the boxes we deem acceptable.

In an ideal world, moving people away or relocating people would be a last case scenario. I would propose each community embody the value of communal wealth, where it would be the collective responsibility of everyone to gather resources to tend to the needs of the most vulnerable among us. This would mean equipping all communities with myriad supportive services to assist people in times of need, while also ensuring equitable systems are in place to prevent future misfortune. Each community would be equipped to foster a sense of belonging for those who choose to be a part of it, without fear of being “othered” and cast aside.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My personal favorite is a quote from Octavia Butler: “I can write my own stories, and I can write myself in.”

This quote is relevant to me personally because I have lived a life in which I believed I needed to show up in a specific way to get things done the “right” way — to follow rules and not make messes, to stay in my lane and the boxes I created for self.

As I do my inner work, I cannot help but see the parallels in how we approach many social challenges. Determining how I want to show up requires me to give myself permission to imagine a story that is mine, without thinking about the outside gaze. It allows me to be brave when I speak about oppression and unfair practices. It allows me to ask questions that may not have immediate answers and be okay with uncomfortable silence as others do the hard work of processing.

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.

This is a tough one! The first person which comes to mind is Dr. Wilda Gafney. She is a biblical scholar, priest and professor of Hebrew studies who engages in womanist thought. As previously mentioned, my faith foundation sustains me, but my faith journey has not been without struggle. Dr. Gafney’s work transformed my way of thinking and paved the way for renewed hope. I’m not sure if I would be so chatty if I was in her presence though — I would definitely be ‘fangirling’ the entire time.

How can our readers follow you online?

For more information about how I am working with Venice Family Clinic to address the homelessness crisis and assist communities across Los Angeles and the nation, please visit our Clinic’s website https://venicefamilyclinic.org/ and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.