Dozens of framed photographs and paintings on the walls in Gabrielle’s cozy one-bedroom apartment in Boyle Heights showcase her artistry and cherished memories from trips to New Zealand and Europe. Her favorite is a black and white portrait of a miner in New Zealand panning for gold. 

Gabrielle (who is comfortable printing only her first name) feels she struck gold, too, when she moved into this light-filled apartment in September 2019. She calls the place — with an open kitchen, a large bathroom and a sweeping view over park greenery and palm trees to the snow-capped mountains outside of Los Angeles — her “safe haven,” after feeling unsafe for several years. 

A professional gemologist whose family once had five jewelry stores in Hawaii, she had struggled with alcoholism and mental health issues, and a suicide attempt left her in a coma for five days. While she was recovering from major neck surgery and fighting to be granted disability, she was living in her car in Los Angeles for several months and in transitional housing for more than 15 months. She wondered if she would ever have an apartment again or “be stuck in a hell hole forever.”

A view of Los Angeles with snowy mountains in the background.
A 2020 report found that Los Angeles had more than one vacant residential unit for every unhoused person. Credit: Ocean Image Photography / Shutterstock

Gabrielle’s luck began to change when a California nonprofit called Brilliant Corners got involved. She had qualified for help from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services Housing for Health division that gives priority to vulnerable clients with health issues. (Gabrielle contributes 30 percent of her income to the rent, and the rest is covered by the program’s subsidy.) But when the Boyle Heights apartment in a former hospital opened up, the landlord didn’t want to rent to her because of her bad credit. The real estate specialists at Brilliant Corners worked with Gabrielle’s case manager at the local nonprofit Life Steps to convince the landlord he was not taking a big risk in accepting Gabrielle as a renter. 

Brilliant Corners was founded in 2004 by several nonprofit service providers with the mission to find housing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in three California counties. In 2014, it significantly expanded its mission to extremely low-income Californians and began operating the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool, in partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and private partners such as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, as part of the Housing for Health initiative. The Flex Pool is a supportive housing rent subsidy program that helps match vulnerable individuals with available housing options. 

The key is its flexibility: “For one landlord, it was a dealbreaker that the applicant had $3,000 in debt. So we paid off half the debt,” says Kolby Vaughn, Brilliant Corners’ associate housing services director in San Diego, which has a Flex Pool that is funded by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness. “For another client, cooking was really important so we spoke with the landlord [to see] if we could put a hot plate in his unit. These are the kind of hurdles we can overcome outside of the bureaucratic process.”

With a budget of over $200 million, braiding state, local and private funding sources, Brilliant Corners has been able to make a significant impact. “We have developed the capacity to administer over $10 million of rent subsidies every month,” according to Brilliant Corners CEO Bill Pickel. To date, the nonprofit has placed nearly 13,000 unhoused people into permanent homes in Los Angeles, averaging about 200 people a month. Brilliant Corners contracts with government agencies, such as the L.A. County Department of Health Services or Veterans Affairs, other nonprofits and community partners, and pairs up with Intensive Case Management Services to help clients achieve and maintain health and housing stability. 

Its initial efforts in L.A. focused on the most vulnerable clients who frequently used costly emergency services. This is how Brilliant Corners makes the case that it actually saves the county money. According to a 2017 Rand study that analyzed the first two and a half years of the program, every $1 invested in the program saved the county $1.20 in health care and other social service costs. The idea is that once clients have stable housing, they have a better foundation to address other issues including their physical and mental health. 

Brilliant Corners housing coordinator Adriana Flores poses with client Brian Wearren.
Brilliant Corners housing coordinator Adriana Flores helped Brian Wearren get over housing hurdles. Credit: Morgan Soloski

“Clients are typically referred by a government agency or a local case management nonprofit,” Pickel explains, as was the case with Life Steps, the local nonprofit that helped Gabrielle. “We meet individuals one on one.” BC’s housing coordinators provide support from the initial contact all the way through. “They are sticking with one person and don’t leave them alone once they are in an apartment,” says Pickel. “Most folks need some level of ongoing support.”

NPR calls Brilliant Corners a “real estate agency for the unhoused,” because what distinguishes it from other housing programs is its dedicated team of landlord engagement specialists who build long-standing relationships with landlords so they know when a unit will become available. This strategy is considerably different from the normal bureaucratic process where overworked case managers need to find the time to canvas neighborhoods and rental portals for available apartments. 

“Especially in California communities where the real estate market is so intense and vacancies are so limited, landlords have lots of choices and might go with someone who just landed a job at Google or Facebook,” Pickel notes. “How can low-income folks possibly compete in such a competitive market to secure a unit? We help put everything in place to match somebody with the unit.” Brilliant Corners sometimes enters into long-term agreements with landlords; these could include guaranteeing rent from day one even before the tenant moves in and assurances that rent is paid on time. 

Manola Rodriguez, for instance, who owns and manages 50 apartment units in Antelope Valley with her husband, met Brilliant Corners representatives when they were canvassing the neighborhood in 2014. She has been renting half of her units to Brilliant Corners clients ever since. “We believe in second chances,” she says. “It’s very hard for people to function without a roof over their head.” 

Despite its convincing model, Brilliant Corners has dozens of one-star reviews on online platforms where both clients and landlords complain that they have been unable to reach anybody at the nonprofit when problems arose, such as a rodent infestation or behavioral issues with mentally ill renters. But Rodriguez says that Brilliant Corners representatives were always there to assist with problems.

Brilliant Corners client Brian Wearren enjoys his apartment building's rooftop.
Brilliant Corners client Brian Wearren enjoys his apartment building’s rooftop. Courtesy of Brilliant Corners

To cut through even more red tape and avoid cumbersome bureaucracy, Brilliant Corners is currently developing five multifamily housing sites in L.A., totaling 376 units of permanent supportive housing. The nonprofit is also managing its own residential care homes. 

The situation is particularly dire in Los Angeles County, which counted more than 75,500 unhoused people in 2023, an uptick of nine percent from 2022. The homeless number in the city has gone up 10 percent to 46,260, and more than 2,000 unhoused people died last year in the city amidst the housing and fentanyl crises, more than six deaths a day. The alarming death rate, too, rises significantly every year. 

A Harvard study shows that low-rent units under $1,400 a month have disappeared fast across all states, particularly in California. “We’re rehousing people faster and more people. Even though the number of people we are able to house is rising, the number of people who need affordable housing is rising faster,” Pickel admits. “What comes to mind is the unfortunate image of bailing water out of a boat, but there’s more water coming in than we can bail out.”

On her first day in office in December 2022, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass signed an emergency declaration on homelessness, promising to cut red tape and fast-track affordable housing permits. Activists laud her efforts, but they are far from enough. “Billions are being spent. What are we doing wrong?” Pickel asks. “I think we have a multi-generational complex social problem that includes the failure to build enough housing at various income levels, including middle-income housing, workforce housing and deeply affordable housing. We also have a tragically fractured social safety net and an unfolding crisis of people in severe distress, whether it’s from mental health, substance abuse or so many other reasons. It is really hard to develop our way out of this problem. We would need something in the order of $10 to $12 billion a year. That’s a staggering number.”

Similarly, in San Diego, Kolby Vaughn says that more people end up unhoused for the first time than Brilliant Corners and other services can put in apartments. Many seniors are aging into homelessness because their pensions are not keeping up with housing prices. Since launching the San Diego Flex Pool in October 2020, Brilliant Corners has housed 900 individuals and families in need, with a focus on youth, veterans and those with complex health issues. But the need continues to mount: California needs 1.4 million more affordable rental units. 

At the same time, studies also show that a significant percentage of high-rent housing is lying vacant, held for its value not as shelter, but for investment purposes. A 2020 report found that Los Angeles had more than one vacant residential unit for every unhoused person.

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This is where Brilliant Corners sees a lever to offer landlords incentives to rent to their clients by giving them assurances other nonprofits can’t. “We’re not building our way out of homelessness,” Brilliant Corners housing coordinator Adriana Flores says. She has experienced housing insecurity herself. “A lot of us have been in our clients’ shoes,” she says, and she calls what she offers them “a hand up, not a handout.”

Her client Brian Wearren is a success story. After being honorably discharged from the Navy and then having been incarcerated for 25 years for assault and robbery, Wearren faced some hurdles to finding housing: He had no rental history, no credit and no income. But he found himself a one-bedroom apartment in San Diego on the 12th floor with a view over the city. Brilliant Corners helped him pay for application fees and furniture, and Flores assured the landlord the rent was guaranteed with his VA (Veterans Affairs) rent voucher. Now he works two jobs as a plumber and a fiber optics cable installer and wants to pay it forward. 

“I’m extremely lucky and had a lot of support, but not everybody is so lucky,” Wearren says. “I want to establish transitional housing for guys like me who come out of the military or out of incarceration.”