Last March, when the extent of the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to sink in as schools and businesses across the nation started to close, actor Kristen Bell learned that the government in Italy -- already devastated by the virus -- had just declared a moratorium on mortgage payments to help its citizens cope with the crisis. “Did you hear about what they’re doing in Italy?” she relayed to a friend excitedly.
You could almost hear the idea being born. Bell and her husband, actor Dax Shepard, aren’t mortgage lenders -- but they do own several residential buildings in Los Angeles. Within a couple of weeks, Bell and Shepard announced that they would waive all rents for their tenants for the month of April. “People over profit always,” she says. “It’s a no-brainer.”
The action was a familiar role for Bell, 39, star of Frozen and The Good Place, among other films and TV shows. She is well-known for her long list of charitable ventures, and helping to make sure that vulnerable people have a safe, secure place to live has been a top priority since well before the coronavirus pandemic.
For nearly a decade, she has worked with the Los Angeles-based People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), which provides services to homeless individuals and families in more than 140 cities throughout California.
The relationship started when Bell wanted to donate a few boxes of clothes. “I did an internet search and PATH came up as a facility that assists people who are transitioning out of homelessness, so I called them up,” she says. “And then, because I’m interested in more information all the time -- I tell my girls I have a growth mindset -- I called their offices again and asked if I could come in and learn more about their organization.”
Bell spent a lunch break the next day peppering PATH staff with questions about their programs. “At this point, probably about eight or nine years ago, we were really seeing homelessness begin to become a crisis in Los Angeles,” she says. “What I liked about PATH is that they have so many services under one roof. People who are homeless often have to go from office to office for different services, and who knows if they’ll get there? At PATH they have mental health and physical health facilities, job training and employment services, as well as supportive housing all under one umbrella.”
She was inspired by PATH’s Making It Home program, which recruits volunteers to help people move from the streets or a shelter to their own homes. “We have moved almost 10,000 individuals and families into their own permanent homes just in the last five or six years, and Kristen has been an important part of that work,” says Tessa Madden Storms, PATH’s senior director of development and communications.
“When folks first transition out of homelessness, they don’t have the things they need to make their new house a home—a bed to sleep on, a couch to sit on, towels, pillows. Part of our mission is to ensure that people will be able to move into these homes with dignity,” Madden Storms says.
So PATH connects its clients with volunteer groups or individuals who make all that happen. Over the past several years, Bell estimates that she and her friends have helped “welcome home” at least 20 families. “You and your friends can go to Ikea, go to the Goodwill, or donate stuff from your house, and rent a U-Haul and move a family,” she says. “I’ve gotten to sit down with families I would have never met before and make new friends.”
On average, PATH moves about 23 families per week into new homes. “You don’t have to be able to pull together a big group to volunteer like Kristen does,” Madden Storms says. “We also have a ‘Welcome Home Kit’ program, where people supply our families with basic essentials for a new home, things that would fit in a laundry basket, like hygiene items, kitchen tools, and cleaning supplies.”
Bell says she’s learned a lot about the myths and misconceptions surrounding homelessness by volunteering with PATH. “In many cases, one of the root causes of homelessness is a lack of a support system traveling from adolescent into young adulthood, and through adulthood,” she says. “The people I talk to have had rough childhoods. They didn’t have parents and/or grandparents who helped them apply for community college or a GED, who asked them what they wanted to do with their lives or just how they were feeling today.”
Many of the homeless individuals Bell has met had been in the foster care system. Studies have found that at least a quarter to a third of youths aging out of foster care become homeless within a year of leaving the system.
“The transition to adulthood is a really vulnerable time for a lot of people,” says Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Buffalo. “If someone doesn’t have emotional stability and support from a family, that’s a huge risk factor for homelessness, especially when young people are coming out of other systems like the child welfare system or the criminal justice system.”
That’s one reason Bell also works with another Los Angeles group called Alliance of Moms, which acts as a support system for young women who are pregnant or raising children while in foster care. “It’s staggering: 50% of girls in L.A. who go through foster care experience at least one pregnancy by the time they’re 19, and their children have a higher likelihood of entering foster care themselves, putting them at risk for homelessness,” Bell says. “This is clearly a multigenerational cycle, and we need a village.”
Alliance of Moms sponsors a yearly event called Raising Baby, a day of interactive parenting workshops that focus on early brain development. Bell and more than 100 other volunteers drive young moms and their children to the event, organize food, provide child care, or serve as helpers who stay with one of the guest moms all day to assist her. “My favorite part is when they drop the kids off with us in a quiet room where we get to hold the sleeping babies!” Bell says.
For Bell, her work with PATH and Alliance of Moms is all a piece of her philosophy of building a support system for people in need. “A lot of people are out there living alone on planet Earth,” she says. “We have to have a holistic approach. There are always going to be multiple factors behind a major problem like homelessness, but if we can isolate some of the biggest ones and try to help, we have a chance at fixing it.”
Committed to Community
That philosophy is also central to Bell and Shepard’s fledgling diaper company, Hello Bello, launched in 2019, that sells a range of “premium baby products for nonpremium prices.” The couple both grew up in Michigan on very strict family budgets, and Bell says she wanted to create a baby company that was affordable and sold products that fit with real families’ lives.
“I would walk down baby aisles and see pure white, crisp, clean bottles, and that’s not what my nursery looked like. It was covered in avocado and urine,” she says. “So we created a bright, colorful, fun palette that wouldn’t make your house feel messy by comparison.” Bell and Shepard also made it clear early on that they would want to give away a lot of products. “Just in our first year alone, we’ve given away over a million diapers to 70 different organizations like Baby2Baby in Los Angeles, which provides diapers, clothes, and other necessities for children living in poverty.”
And with parents and kids struggling to make their days work while stuck at home during the pandemic, they created “Camp Hello Bello,” a series of free online kids’ classes and activities such as yoga, drumming, and crafting led by Shepard, Bell, and a host of “counselors” vetted (and paid) by Hello Bello. The series ran live on the company’s Instagram feed throughout April.
“I learned this from the campaign to revive Veronica Mars [the breakout teen noir detective series that helped launch her to stardom] -- anything that’s worth anything has a community behind it,” she says. “I never wanted to create a product that just sells. I wanted to create a community.”
One popular camp activity involves coloring and activity sheets based on The World Needs More Purple People, Bell’s new book with co-author Benjamin Hart, released in June. “Our kids are absorbing these divisive conversations that we have at the dinner table -- adults think it’s fun debate, but kids see differences and divisions. We don’t talk about our similarities,” Bell says.
“So we came up with a story about a girl who believes she should be a ‘purple person.’ We focused on five pillars of what everyone can believe no matter which way you vote or which way you pray -- like hard work is important, laughter is fun. The idea was to create a new lane for kids to be in to help them get along easier.”
With The Good Place now in the rearview mirror after four popular seasons and a deeply touching series finale, Bell says she’s going on instinct when choosing new projects. She had been set to start filming in May on “Queenpins,” with actor and comedian Leslie Jones, a true story about two Midwestern housewives who started a counterfeit coupon organization and laundered $40 million before being caught by the FBI. But that date, like everything else in the entertainment industry right now, is on hold.
“I’m not necessarily trying to do anything huge,” she says. “I’m reading things I like and saying yes to them. That’s how my happiness is fulfilled.” And as always, she continues to say yes to projects that help make sure people are fed, clothed, sheltered, and cared for. “I just don’t think any human should be judged or cast aside because of a lack of opportunity -- to get sober, to get health care, to have a job.
“We all have worth and we all have dignity. And we have to work on these problems together if we’re going to find solutions.”
Homelessness: How to Talk to Your Kids
Bell says her two daughters, Lincoln and Delta, ages 6 and 5, are just starting to ask questions about the people they see living in the half a dozen tent camps scattered in the side streets not far from their home. “My main concern is helping them understand the whys, because it’s so much easier to judge than to have compassion.”
Kids living in or near larger cities may be more likely to see homelessness firsthand, but all parents should have the tools to discuss homelessness with their children, suggests Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Buffalo. Messages to share:
People may become homeless for many reasons, and these are often outside a person’s control. “It’s not about being lazy or not wanting to work,” Bowen says. “You can tailor the detail to the child’s age, but you can explain that often people who are homeless may not be able to work because of physical or mental health issues. Also, housing is expensive and it can be hard even for people who are working to afford it. And sometimes people have a home life they have to leave because it isn’t safe where they are living.”
People who are homeless are not dangerous or “bad people.” “There is a lot of stigma and negative stereotyping about homelessness,” Bowen says. “That can lead to fear. Help your children understand that these people aren’t dangerous, but they need help to be in a safe home.”
There are things we can do to help. Consider finding a program like PATH in your own area, to donate your money and time. PATH’s Tessa Madden Storms also recommends simple but valuable ways to help, like creating hygiene kits or sack lunches for people living on the street, or organizing efforts at school or among friends to help fundraise for organizations like PATH. “There are many possible initiatives that are kid friendly,” she says.
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