By Greg Hardesty
Brittney Weissman leads Hollywood 4WRD, a coalition addressing homelessness in her native Los Angeles
For a while, Brittney Weissman considered becoming a lawyer.
“But I decided I didn’t want to be stuck working with the laws on the books,” she says. “I wanted to be part of a community that helped craft and shape laws.”
Long active in mental health and homelessness issues in her native Los Angeles County, Weissman (’06, M.A. in Public Policy) says her time at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy gave her a solid understanding of how public policy works.
“I learned about what sells a policy,” says Weissman, executive director of Hollywood 4WRD, a coalition driven to create systemic change to effectively address homelessness in Hollywood through advocacy, education, service coordination, and innovation.
“The USC program gave me a great grasp of the interconnectedness and intersectionality of all the various levers related to policy – political feasibility, financial feasibility,” she explains. “It’s not one or the other. The whole equation must make sense to move a policy forward.”
Advocating for mental health and reforming the criminal justice system
After earning a B.A. in American studies and sociology from Occidental College, Weissman took a job with the California Endowment, the largest private health foundation in the state.
She completed her master’s degree in public policy while working part time, taking a long commuter bus from the San Fernando Valley to USC and back. After a decade with the California Endowment – whose mission is to expand access to affordable, quality health care – her next role was as chief executive officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Los Angeles County.
At NAMI, she helped to develop 13 affiliates into more cohesive, professionally run units while advancing policies and programs aimed at making life better for those affected by mental health challenges.
“We’ve grown up with mental health conditions in my family,” Weissman says of her interest in mental health issues, “and I’ve been in and out of very helpful therapy all my life.”
Weissman advocated for the dignity of people living with serious mental illnesses and worked to reform the criminal justice system in L.A. County. Over the course of 10 months, the organization developed over 100 recommendations — following conversations with more than 1,000 government and community stakeholders.
Among the reforms they came up with: developing and expanding pre-arrest and pre-booking diversion programs; conducting mental health assessments as quickly as possible once people are jailed; and funding mental health and substance use care.
L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn appointed Weissman to the countywide “Alternatives to Incarceration” effort, which aims to depopulate Men’s Central Jail with a care-first approach. Weissman also was appointed to the Mental Health Commission for L.A. County by Supervisor Kathryn Barger – a position she’s held for six years.
Homelessness coalition includes Hollywood’s business community
In 2021, Weissman became the first executive director of Hollywood 4WRD – the name is a play on “forward” and “four walls, a roof, and a door.” She says Hollywood is the epicenter of mental health innovation in L.A. County.
One of the agency’s projects, Hollywood 2.0, brings together a coalition of public and private stakeholders invested in creating systemic change. Key goals are providing holistic, human-centered, community-based care.
“Homelessness coalitions exist in other parts of the county,” Weissman explains, “but we’re unique because we include, in a robust way, the business community.” The five-year Hollywood 2.0, launched last year, will replicate in communities throughout L.A.
Stephen Fiechter, senior director of clinical services at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), said Hollywood 4WRD has helped bring people off the street and ultimately into permanent homes. He has high praise for Weissman, saying it’s “one of the highlights of my career” to work alongside her: “She is keenly insightful and a brilliant, thoughtful, and forward-thinking leader. She is kind and compassionate, mission driven and focused, approachable and connected.”
Fixing homelessness requires better coordination
Despite cynicism in some quarters – fueled, in part, by the fact that homelessness continues to rise in L.A. County – Weissman says fixing the problem “isn’t a hopeless quest.”
“We created these social and collective problems,” she explains. “They are the results of many decades of decision-making, so if we undecide or redecide, we can go down different decision paths and come out with different outcomes.”
Part of the problem is the “disjointedness” of the system itself, Weisssman says.
“We are doing a lot of work on coordination of care and coordinating systems of care,” she says. “We currently have systems-centered care, but we need to shift the focus to the people moving through the system.”
As for what motivates her, Weissman says she wants to make sure people experiencing homelessness don’t feel alone; “that they feel connected to care, to community – that’s definitely what drives me.”