A Family Quest to End Homelessness

For J. Scott Watt, his sister Sally Oxley and his daughter Nadine Watt, building homes has been their family’s business since 1947. To understand their devotion to resolving the homelessness crisis, simply look to the man who founded that business – Scott Watt and Oxley’s late father, Raymond Watt. 

“My father was always philanthropic,” Scott Watt said. “It was his philosophy to give back.” 

“He was a very caring and giving person,” Oxley recalled. “My father would bring stray people home for dinner and my mother would say, ‘we don’t have enough food,’ and he’d say, ‘find enough.’”

Raymond Watt started his construction company to provide housing for veterans returning from World War II. “He just wanted to house people from the very beginning,” Nadine Watt said. “Whether it was people who could afford it or people who could not, he wanted a roof over everyone’s head.”

As children, Scott Watt and Oxley remember going with him to construction sites every weekend, watching him turn homeownership dreams into reality. In the mid-1950s, Watt Companies became one of the first to provide low-cost housing in greater Los Angeles, building sub-divisions in Compton, South Bay and the downtown area, neighborhoods where most homebuilders did not go.

“Congresswoman Maxine Waters still talks about my grandfather and the houses he built,” Nadine Watt said. “She’ll say, ‘I want to take you on a tour of my district and show you all the Ray Watt homes – what he did for my constituents and my people.’”

“He was tireless, always thinking about where to house and shelter people,” Scott Watt said. “It was obviously an influence on all of us.”

Supporting Trojan efforts

The Watt family’s support for USC also began with Raymond Watt, who served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1968 until his death in 2009. Scott Watt and Oxley both received their undergraduate degrees from USC, and Nadine Watt became a member of the Trojan Family by attending graduate school. When Scott Watt was asked to join the USC School of Social Work’s Board of Councilors in 2006, it was an opportunity to marry his dedication to USC with his passion for finding solutions for homelessness.

“At the time, the school didn’t really have a discipline in homelessness,” Scott Watt said. “I was also on the board for the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row, and Dean Marilyn Flynn started thinking that the school should be doing more on the issue of homelessness. So, we funded some of the initial research on this.”

The family has continued its advocacy for strategies to end homelessness, including the creation of the Watt Family Innovation Fund for Urban Social Development, a research laboratory model to encourage the exploration of solutions to housing affordability and access in Los Angeles, which can also inform solutions in other urban areas. Scott Watt and his wife, Obaida Watt, also funded a forum on homelessness at the school, bringing together participants from Los Angeles city and county agencies, private service organizations and academia to address integrated care and supportive housing.

“There are some exciting things happening through education at the USC School of Social Work,” Scott Watt said. “There is theory and application, and the research goes out in front of the application.”

“If you don’t study it, you don’t know that these people need other resources,” Nadine Watt said. “They need jobs, they have mental health issues, other things besides just being fed. If you study everything that leads up to homelessness, you’re going to get to the root of the problem rather than just putting a bandage on it.”

Leading the way

In 2015, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) declared 12 “Grand Challenges” to be addressed by the field of social work in the United States over the next 10 years. The AASWSW has asked the USC School of Social Work, led by Suzanne Wenzel, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development, and Assistant ProfessorBenjamin Henwood, to assume national leadership for the grand challenge to end homelessness. Without hesitation, the Watt family stepped up to provide the seed funding to launch this effort.

“These Grand Challenges are things I have always been thinking about, and social work takes it another step,” Scott Watt said. “I also think advances in technologies, in the sense of medicine and genetics that will cure people of their ills, will have a huge impact on ending homelessness. There is often opposition to funding this issue because of a perception that homeless people are not trying. We have to educate the public about what is going on out there.”

“It bothers me that so many people will fund efforts to help the homeless outside of the United States, and we have homeless needs right here,” Oxley said.

During the course of a year, nearly 1.5 million Americans will experience homelessness for at least one night. In Los Angeles County alone, more than 44,000 people call the streets their home, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. 

Homelessness is an issue with many layers and many prejudices. It was a problem that Raymond Watt confronted in his own way, and his children and grandchildren have committed themselves to be a part of the solution.

“I feel very fortunate to have a grandfather that instilled these values, and I learned them from my father and my aunt,” Nadine Watt said. “I’m now teaching this to my children so that they will continue the legacy of philanthropy in the Watt family.”

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