County considers restructuring homeless authority

Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors has voted to consider restructuring the agency that manages hundreds of millions of dollars to fund dozens of initiatives aimed at curbing homelessness.

In a motion pointing to the results of a recent audit of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn said a new governance model may be needed.

The authority “was created before homelessness reached crisis proportions, and while it has bulked up personnel and scaled up operations in recent years, its governance model has remained stagnant,” Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. “Perhaps it is time to explore new governance models with the goal of ensuring that we are best serving the thousands of homeless individuals and families who need help.”

Though the motion did not specify just what solutions might be proposed, Hahn offered some ideas of her own.

I have not been shy about my criticism about LAHSA and its current structure and I just feel like it’s not working as well as we need it to,” she said. “Sometimes it’s too bureaucratic, it’s too slow, it’s too resistant to change.”

Hahn said she is not alone, and that many city and community officials complain about the agency and feel that the authority is more responsive to the city of Los Angeles than their local problems.

She suggested that solutions could include breaking up the authority into two entities, one that serves the city of Los Angeles alone and the other covering the balance of the county. Another idea she promoted was a subregional system with separate agencies covering a handful of geographies.

If we all decide that we like keeping LAHSA in place, we could structure the current commission to look more like [the Metropolitan Transportation Authority] board, where there is more regional representation that could be added, as well as our directors of public health, mental health and health services,” Hahn said.

She acknowledged that the authority was set up as a part of a legal settlement and any change in structure would require the consensus of Los Angeles and federal housing officials.

The agency has already gone through a major leadership change, with CEO Peter Lynn stepping down in December after five years at the helm. Heidi Marston, the acting executive director, was formally appointed to the role in June after a nationwide search.

The chair of the authority commission said in June that Marston was up for the challenge.

Heidi Marston is the exact person we want to reform an entrenched system — she’s brave, energetic and unflappable. She has a commanding mastery of the details of how a bold homeless services system should work,” LAHSA Commission Chair Sarah Dusseault said then.

She came to LAHSA for a challenge and relentlessly led our unprecedented COVID-19 response — housing thousands of seniors in weeks. She will continue the momentum of systemic change and racial justice. I’m proud to announce that her leadership of this organization will continue.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voted with her colleagues, but asked for an amendment to the motion to ensure that the current structure will be evaluated fairly side-by-side with other options. She also questioned the need for a change.

Given the fact that the audit resulted in the outcome we wanted, which is to have the strongest possible procedures to record outcomes, I’m not sure that we need to assume that there should be changes in LAHSA governance,” Kuehl said. “Helping people prevent and exit homelessness is a complicated and messy business.”

Ridley-Thomas and Hahn’s motion was apparently written in response to an audit of internal controls over performance reporting that covered July 2018 through June 2019.

During that time period, LAHSA and its contractors provided services to about 70,000 people who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, according to an Aug. 26 letter to the Board of Supervisors from Auditor-Controller Arlene Barrera.

We noted various opportunities for LAHSA to improve and strengthen internal controls,” Barrera wrote.

LAHSA was initially unable to provide some documentation, like detailed lists of clients served, and sometimes overstated program outcomes, according to the auditor-controller.

The homeless services agency said it is called upon to provide more than 100 performance metrics, some of which aren’t consistent with system-wide data normally reported and which require a complex series of data queries.

Based on the sample selection by the [auditor-controller], only 11 of these clients had inadequate supporting documentation, indicating less than 1% of error across all 19,909 clients that were reported,” the agency wrote in response to one finding.

LAHSA has historically cross-referenced results with individual case files to ensure accuracy in reporting outcomes, but more staffing is needed to do that work, according to the agency. LAHSA officials told Barrera the agency has made substantial improvements since the audit and planned to fully implement other recommendations by this month.

The audit followed a 2018 review that also found management deficiencies and led to routine monitoring of LAHSA’s systems.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger noted that she and Supervisor Hilda Solis had asked staffers to look at the governance structure in February, but the effort was derailed as a result of the county’s shift to focus on the global pandemic.

Barger said LAHSA rose to the challenge posed by COVID-19, accomplishing “Herculean tasks” to shelter at-risk homeless people, and praised Marston’s leadership.

Without some of the structures that Heidi has put in place … I truly believe the impact of COVID-19 on our individuals and families experiencing homelessness would have been devastating,” she said.

However, Barger also agreed that the board must ensure equitable distribution of funding across geographies countywide and make sure that the strongest systems are in place.

Ridley-Thomas said reliable data is key to solving the problem of homelessness and maintaining support for the quarter-cent sales tax that funds Measure H.

The need for oversight and accountability were embedded into the law that created Measure H; the public should have confidence in the systems designed to track performance,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Accurate and reliable data is crucial to making sure we are making the most of our resources, given the scale of the homeless crisis.”

The board directed Barrera, the new acting CEO Fesia Davenport and County Counsel Mary Wickham to report back in 30 days with recommendations for alternative governance models and a recap of outstanding issues facing LAHSA.

The proposed Measure H funding recommendations for the 2020-21 fiscal year are set to be reviewed by the board Sept. 15.

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