Leaders still seek solutions as homeless numbers grow

Wave Staff Report

LOS ANGELES — The homelessness crisis may have taken a back seat to the coronavirus in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that the region is any closer to a solution.

For the second year in a row, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles experienced an increase in the homeless population following the January count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

The county’s homeless population increased by 12.7% over 2019, while the city of Los Angeles’ homeless population jumped by 14.2%.

In 2019, the numbers were 12% in the county and 16% in the city. In January 2019, Los Angeles County had 58,936 homeless people, but this year’s number rose to 66,433. The city of Los Angeles counted 36,165 homeless people in 2019, and 41,290 this year.

The authority’s data showed that black residents are four times as likely to be homeless in Los Angeles County, while the number of white people who are homeless roughly tracks their share of the overall population. Latino residents are slightly underrepresented in the homeless count relative to their population share. The report concludes that 15,000 fewer people would be homeless if not for institutional racism.

Elise Buik, the president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said the city’s passage of Proposition HHH and the county’s adoption of Measure H, both of which commit funding to build permanent supportive housing and shelters, helped get people off the streets, but it’s not enough.

We’ve seen our rehousing system ramp up to help serve our most vulnerable and move into high-gear to respond to COVID-19,” Buik said. “Now it’s time to create an L.A. County where no one spends more than 30% of their income on housing. We’ll need to build more housing, prevent more homelessness and get federal, state, county and city funds working together to do it.”

While local officials worked to find housing solutions for the growing homeless population, a federal district court judge ordered them to increase their efforts in response to a lawsuit filed by downtown homeless advocates who formed the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights.

In May, U.S. District Judge David Carter appointed a mediator to oversee efforts to resolve the financial sticking point which had delayed settlement of a lawsuit accusing city and county governments of not doing enough to address the homeless problem in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The focus of Carter’s order were the thousands of indigent people camping within 500 feet of freeway overpasses, underpasses or ramps. Judge Carter ordered Los Angeles authorities to “humanely” relocate those people away from freeways and ramps because of the deadly hazards in those areas, including pollutants, passing cars and potential earthquakes.

According to a binding term sheet filed in October as part of the suit, the city is responsible for creating 5,300 new beds by April and 700 additional new beds by December 2021, for a total of 6,000 new beds. The city also must provide an additional 700 beds by April that “may be beds previously captured in an agreement or plan between the city and county,” according to the county’s notice.

To assist in funding services for the 6,000 new beds, the county will pay the city up to $60 million per year for five years. The county will pay to the city a one-time bonus of $8 million if the 5,300 new bed target is reached within 10 months.

This came at the same time the alliance complained to Judge Carter that the unit cost of providing temporary housing was far higher than market price.

In September. the homeless authority began transitioning homeless people from temporary shelter to long-term housing solutions through Project Roomkey, which housed people in motel and hotel rooms. The authority secured more than 4,000 rooms in 37 hotels, and filled them with more than 6,000 people.

With Project Roomkey, we saw what is possible when our system focuses on a rehousing solution and is provided with the resources and political will to accomplish a goal,” said Heidi Marston, executive director of the authority. “But that was a temporary solution.

By March 2021, the authority planned to transition clients from all 37 hotels into housing at a rate of 400 to 1,000 people per month. Under a one-year lease, the majority of the minimum 4,900 people will move in to “Recovery Housing,” which will consist of pre-existing and new units that will be subsidized and come with supportive services.

Carter plans to hold another progress hearing on the lawsuit in January.

At the same time, the county Board of Supervisors began discussion about restructuring the authority.

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 might 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,” said Ridley-Thomas, who was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in November. “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.”

Hahn said the authority wasn’t working as well as it needed to.

“Sometimes it’s too bureaucratic, it’s too slow, it’s too resistant to change,” she said.

As the year came to a close, the homeless authority asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be exempted from counting unsheltered homeless individuals in 2021.

The Board of Supervisors voted to support the request, saying conducting the count was a potential COVID-19 super-spreader event.

A homeless authority spokesman said the agency was still planning to conduct a 2021 count of homeless individuals living in shelters, as well as a housing inventory.

In addition to gauging what is almost certain to be an increase in homelessness — given that people are falling into homelessness faster than the county and various cities can provide temporary or permanent housing — the annual count helps determine where the need for services is most concentrated or whether special programs should be designed to help the elderly or families, for example.