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Elise Buik: Strategically Pivoting United Way to Help the Community During the Pandemic

By Melody Yuan
Feb. 18, 2021
Elise Buik, CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, helping the NASA JPL team put together 400 hygiene kits for homeless neighbors in 2019

How nonprofit United Way is stepping up to help the L.A. community hit hard by COVID-19.

COVID-19’s impact on the Los Angeles community and its homeless population has been immense. Prior to the pandemic, homelessness in the Greater Los Angeles area was already increasing 12.7% year-over-year, with many experiencing chronic homelessness. The pandemic adds an extra blow: a recent article by the Los Angeles Times states that massive job losses will cause the homeless count to triple by 2023.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles has been tackling the daunting social issue and creating pathways out of poverty since it was first founded in 1992. The nonprofit is responsible for moving 45,000 people out of homelessness and into safe homes, increasing the college-ready graduation rate by 5.2% and securing over $11 million in tax returns for low-income households across the county. The woman leading this effort is Elise Buik, the first female President and Chief Executive Officer of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Buik first joined the team in 1994 and has since dedicated herself to improving the quality of life for many Angelenos. Under her leadership, the organization launched a 10-year action plan called Creating Pathways Out of Poverty, which addresses critical issues such as ending homelessness by providing housing stability, improving educational achievement and helping families gain economic mobility. East West Bank has been a partner and supporter of United Way of Greater Los Angeles for 25 years.

Buik speaks with Reach Further about how United Way has had to pivot with the arrival of COVID-19 to ensure that programs continued to run, while also protecting the community, employees and volunteers.

What are some of the biggest challenges you and your team have had to overcome with COVID-19?

You know, when the pandemic hit, we just had so many people in need, especially people who were already on the streets. And while my team and I had the luxury of working from home and using technology like Zoom, for those on the streets and in a tent, the world just shut down.

Many of the families we work with are essential workers, with many working at grocery stores or as delivery drivers. In the initial months of COVID, people just could not get supplies, and so we were getting inundated with requests. I still remember one of our partners calling us crying because, while their families worked all day to provide for others, they would go to the grocery store and not be able to get basic essentials like baby formula and toilet paper. Everything was just gone, and so when the pandemic hit, we just had to mobilize very quickly to get items like water, hand sanitizer, food and protective gear. We needed these items not only for people in vulnerable housing situations, but also for our partners who are on the front lines trying to help families and individuals.

We held a virtual telethon, and it was just amazing to see how quickly everyone mobilized. Organizations like East West Bank and other companies answered the call right away. But it was very much an immediate response of just getting folks’ basic needs met.

Once we got past that immediate response phase, we began to take on some bigger issues of helping students and parents with distance learning and helping workers who had been displaced or who weren't eligible for federal aid. Now, we're starting to move into helping those with health care needs, especially for people who are not in safe housing. We're also looking at rental assistance because we don't want more people becoming homeless. So, as you can see, the needs are changing but the impact of the pandemic is still very much in play.

How has United Way pivoted to focus on some other immediate emergencies in the homelessness crisis?

I would say a couple of things. One is that the pandemic exposed the vulnerability of communities, especially black and brown communities, and I think as organizations start to look closer at racial equity, we're very mindful of that dialogue. I think we’re focusing now on the fact that people are losing their jobs. It’s a spiral where if they get sick, they can’t work. Then, if they lose their job, they can’t pay their rent. So, at United Way, we’re beginning to focus for the first time on keeping people housed. The initiative is called Everyone In, with a comprehensive strategy addressing other social issues such as access to capital, wage increases, mental health treatment, job training and support groups.

We’re also looking at how we’re dealing with issues beyond the pandemic, especially economic mobility for these communities. The entire work dynamic has changed and a lot of jobs in certain industries aren’t coming back. So how are we going to retain those workers for different industries? We have such a vibrant immigrant community in this region and many of them are entrepreneurs, and we’ve been hearing them ask for easier access to capital. So, there are new ideas and areas we’re looking at to help this community move past the pandemic.

Here’s another immediate thing we’re working on in Sacramento: We’ll be launching a housing impact fund using private philanthropy and charitable investments. We are losing our affordable housing at record pace in neighborhoods that are being gentrified. Rent is going up and the cheapest apartment that people can find right now is $1,600 a month, and that’s just not sustainable. To combat this trend, we’re looking at private dollars to spur innovation and build affordable units cheaper and faster, and we’re figuring out how to get the public sector to adopt that and how we can change the laws at every level of government to accelerate this process.

"There are some big issues in this region and those issues require big solutions. You have to really be looking at the big picture for long term change and really be bringing the community together.”

-Elise Buik

Elise Buik speaking at the podium at an Everyone In campaign before the pandemic

East West Bank has been involved with the workplace giving campaign for 25 years, collectively giving over $11 million to United Way to help empower Angelenos. What has been the impact of this partnership?

What is amazing to me about the bank is both their focus on helping people when there's a call for need, and also their willingness to help us work on bigger issues that can solve the problem. It happens with the involvement of their employees, all the way up to their leadership team.

How do you think meaningful change can come about in Los Angeles to address daunting social issues?

There are some big issues in this region, and those issues require big solutions. You have to really be looking at the big picture for long-term change and really be bringing the community together. For us, that's the business community, the philanthropy and grassroots neighborhoods and the public sector, and so that's how we get changes when we can get alignment in the community about a shared vision.

The richness of our region is our diversity, and that includes every level of diversity. If people are getting priced out of this region and can't work here, we're going to become very homogeneous and that’s just not good for our future. It scares me to think of that, and to also to think of a worsening homelessness crisis. I think that's the push and pull that people are not correlating. Rents have gone up dramatically—they’ve almost doubled—and if we want to know why our homeless crisis is increasing, that is a huge driver of it.

2022 will be United Way’s 100th anniversary, and 2021 is our 25th year partnering with East West Bank. When we look back at our history and see all that we’ve done together, we’re very proud, because it’s been an absolutely packed journey.

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