Michael E. Neely, a Vietnam veteran who evolved from the fiery leader of Skid Row’s March to the Sea to become one of the most innovative and influential minds in Los Angeles homeless and social services policy, has died at age 74.

A former Marine and recovering drug addict, Neely was living in a cardboard box on Skid Row in 1988 when he came up with the idea of sending a team of formerly unhoused people out to guide their peers through the maze of social services. The concept was a prototype for Mayor Karen Bass’ Inside Safe program to get people out of encampments.

Under his direction, the agency developed into a national model offering mental, medical and drug treatment care, housing, outreach, harm reduction and prison reentry services.

Long before they became watchwords of modern social service practice, Neely championed concepts like racial equity, cultural competency, lived experience and the special needs of LGBTQ+ homeless youth. An intellectual who knew where every body in L.A. politics was buried, he had the ear of leaders at the city, state and federal level. But he never lost his focus on the lives of homeless people.

Neely died at home June 13 after a brief hospitalization. A memorial service is set for July 8.

“We lost a giant,” said Cheryl Branch, a nonprofit executive and the mother of Neely’s youngest son, Daniel.

Born in 1948 in New Orleans, Neely was raised in Chicago’s Black middle class among others who had joined the Great Migration north, fleeing the racism, poverty and lynchings of the South.

He attended St. Emma Military Academy outside Richmond, Va., the only military boarding school in the U.S. dedicated to young Black and Native American men.

His college education was interrupted when he enlisted in the Marines, serving in Vietnam as a marksman in the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry. He returned with a then little-understood post-traumatic stress disorder that led to a substance use problem.

After he moved to Los Angeles, drugs cost him an aerospace job and an apartment in Hollywood. He stayed in shelters, SRO hotel rooms and encampments on Skid Row and in downtown. After getting clean he quickly rose as a major voice for other homeless individuals.

After the city bulldozed an urban campground he helped head with Ted Hayes, leader of the self-help homeless group Justiceville, they led a homeless March to the Sea in 1987 to raise awareness of conditions on Skid Row, briefly camping at Palisades Park in Santa Monica, with stops in Beverly Hills and Malibu.

“We want to hit areas of affluence and influence,” Neely told The Times at the time.

Neely joined community groups, assailed the City Council and Board of Supervisors at meetings and sat in at the city of Santa Barbara protesting policing of homeless people, which his daughter Lauren Lees said led to his arrest. But the protests didn’t seem to work.

So he turned to the Community Redevelopment Agency, then a major L.A. power player and developer and an unlikely funder of a grass-roots group of formerly unhoused people. “Nobody was hiring people with what we now call lived experience in those days,” said Herb Hatanaka, executive director of Special Service for Groups (SSG), Neely’s funding sponsor. “But Mike had not only a very good vision, he had a clear sense of how to implement it. “

The CRA awarded him $58,600 in 1988 and he opened the Homeless Outreach Program with five employees in a storefront on Sixth Street on Skid Row. The yellow-capped and T-shirted HOP team found homeless people in the streets and got them the services they were entitled to, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Tanya Tull, a pioneer of the housing first policy, remembered calling Neely out during this period for yelling at her during a meeting. He apologized and they became lifelong friends.

“He was angry and intense,” she said. “But he never forgot what he came from, and was willing to speak out to say what needed to be said.”

In 1992, Neely’s agency expanded as the multi-service Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care Services (HOPICS). Neely drew up a blueprint for the program on a bar napkin for a grant proposal, said Branch.

Neely was selected as a Hesselbein Fellow of the Peter Drucker Foundation (now Leader to Leader Institute), where he was mentored by Jim Collins, author of “Good To Great,” in leadership and management techniques, smoothing his rough edges, Tull said. “He became a real leader.”

He retired from HOPICS and in 2011 was appointed to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Commission, the only member with personal experience of homelessness. “He was the voice of the homeless on that board,” said Larry Adamson, a former commissioner and chief operating officer of Midnight Mission.

Neely highlighted the overrepresentation of Black people in the homeless population, and fought for funds for South Los Angeles’ mom and pop homeless agencies and against Skid Row groups he believed exploited workers with “training” wages.

He mentored other leaders including Sarah Dusseault, a former commissioner and member of Committee for Greater L.A., which is pushing for housing on city land.

“He was very astute, read every document,” she said. “But he always brought it back to people and humanity, away from numbers.”

“He was like a conscience for the commission,” said Hatanaka.

In 2017, Neely left the commission to join the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults, in part to forge a link to the aging homeless population. “How can you reasonably expect an individual who is damn near 80 years old to survive [shelters] … unless we have specialized facilities?” he said.

Neely knew every great hole-in-the-wall breakfast and lunch joint in Los Angeles, where he would regale friends and colleagues with his infectious sense of humor. Seated next to him at a public hearing, you were in constant danger of laughing out loud at his sotto voce commentaries.

He was a member of multiple boards and advisory groups, including state commissions on Homeless Veterans and on African American Males and Substance Abuse, the L.A. County Commission on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Brain Trust. The Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, where he was board treasurer since 2019, gave him its Community Champion award this year.

“He was a great man, but he was a better father,” said Lees. In addition to Lees, Neely is survived by his sons, Daniel and Edward Neely; brothers, Mark and Marvin Neely; sisters, Lynda Neely and Gordette Brent; and nephews, nieces and grandchildren.

His memorial is July 8 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the SSG/HOPICS Weber Community Center at 5849 Crocker St., Los Angeles, 90003.

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