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Local Council Member Played Key Role in Regional Homeless Plan

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

April 5 -- At first it seemed almost insurmountable. To bring together a slew of stakeholders -- many with opposing views -- from across Los Angeles County to agree on a plan to lift the largest concentration of homeless in the North America off the streets in ten years.

Yet this Thursday – almost three years after they began – Bring LA Home officials will unveil just such a plan.

And although Council member Richard Bloom won’t admit it outright, if one looks closely, his fingerprints are all over the historic effort.

“It was truly a collaborative effort,” said Bloom, a former Santa Monica mayor and non-profit attorney who has sat on the City Council for seven years. “It’s one milestone along the way… but without leadership, governance and funding the plan isn’t going to go anywhere.”

On Thursday, at the Midnight Mission in Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid row -- 50 square blocks of hellish squalor and the epicenter of homelessness in the County -- Bloom will join LA Mayor Antonio Villaragosa and a group of officials who served on the 60 member blue Ribbon panel to address the multi-billion dollar effort. (see story)

In his speech, Bloom said he plans to encourage continued regional efforts to address the problem and to warn against complacency, or being “too self-congratulatory” as he puts it.

What won’t be mentioned, though, are the trials and tribulations he, Santa Monica staff and his colleagues have undergone together to bring such a blueprint to bear and how much the county looked to Santa Monica as a model on how to handle such a complex problem.

“It’s been a fairly arduous process,” said Bloom. “I expected results at the time I started the process, and we were talking about a one-year time frame. Little did I know that it would take such a long time.”

Delays brought by the Los Angeles mayoral election, accounting blunders by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) -- the agency heading up Bring LA Home -- and general loggerheads over the plan’s specifics -- especially housing production -- frustrated Bloom and others on the panel, he said.

As time passed and the monthly marathon meetings began to stack up, so did Bloom’s resolve to finish the planning and get to action.

“Somebody needed to be cracking the whip,” said Bloom. “If you asked the people in the room how they remember me, I would say many recall me as the one constantly pushing to stop the back and forth and reach an end point.

“If we wanted to spend another 10 years on planning, would could have,” Bloom said.

Those who worked with Bloom said he pushed for tight deadlines, used his skills as a mediator to end bickering and helped introduce Santa Monica-specific strategies being instituted by City staff that will be used to clean up Skid Row.

“I took it upon myself to do whatever it takes,” said Bloom, who recently took over as Executive Director of Levitt and Quinn, a non-profit law firm dedicated to helping mostly low-wage earners navigate the family court system.

But Bloom didn’t do it alone and he didn’t ask for the responsibility, although he did not refuse it, either.

Since he was appointed to the panel in 2003, Bloom has seen his role as that of an “incubator” for ideas, many of which came from Santa Monica officials.

“I relied heavily on our staff to make sure Santa Monica views were represented along the way,” said Bloom. “When I heard someone making sense on a particular point, I would encourage them to express themselves… let’s face it, I’m not the expert here.”

City staffers such as Stacy Rowe, Mona Miyasato and Julie Rusk -- who are dedicated specifically to tackling homeless issues in Santa Monica -- worked hand-in-hand with Bloom on ideas he shared with the panel.

While Rusk is on a one-year sabbatical, Rowe and Miyasato are currently doing the legwork on a significant policy shift in how Santa Monica handles homelessness.

As the current service model -- known as the Continuum of Care -- undergoes an audit this summer to find ways to make it more efficient, City Staff has been instituting a policy of targeting the most hard-core of the homeless for help. They have also been advocating a “Housing First” approach that gets people into supportive housing before they are connected entirely to services.

Those two approaches, Housing First and targeting the hard-core or “chronic” homeless, are set to become the keystones in the fight on homelessness in Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, according to the Bring LA Home report.

Other local officials who pitched in include former and current City managers and other officials from that office, former County Supervisor Ed Edelmen, who is the City’s new high profile regional coordinator on homelessness and City Council members, including Bobby Shriver.

Bloom credited Shriver – an outspoken advocate for both Housing First and targeting the chronically homeless for help – for his work outside of Bring LA Home to train attention on the issue.

“Bobby and I have immersed ourselves in the issue,” Bloom said. “Staff has taken Bobby’s ideas and my focus on regionalism and blended them together.”

While Bloom was specifically asked to head up the Bring LA Home efforts in Santa Monica, he believes he was chosen for Santa Monica’s efforts.

“I was very honored to be asked to represent Santa Monica, but I don’t think it was as much about me as it was Santa Monica,” he said. “And by that I mean, they looked to Santa Monica as a regional leader on the issue.”

Of the Bring LA Home plan itself, Bloom said it contains no “magic bullets” for what is probably the most “complex homeless problem in the nation,” with 88,000 people each night calling the streets of Los Angeles County home.

But what the plan does show is a regional push to actively engage the issue.

“I think that after several decades of ignoring the problem there is a general understanding in local and regional governments that we can’t stand by any longer, and it’s time to try something different,” Bloom said.

A testament to that fact lies in the upcoming agendas for several Councils of Governments -- or COGs -- throughout Los Angeles County that, until recent years, have treated homeless issues as taboo subjects not meant for discussion, Bloom said.

The three years of work by Bloom in Bring LA Home has also left a personal mark on the council member.

Bloom’s decision to join Levitt and Quinn -- whose typical clients are low-wage earners such as factory workers, caregivers, janitors, domestic workers, service workers, unskilled laborers and clerical workers with children -- was partially influenced by his experiences with Bring LA Home.

Nearly 70 percent of the litigants in L.A.'s Family Law Courts do not have an attorney to assist them, according to the 25-year-old law firm’s web site.

“The overwhelming majority of individuals involved in these matters are unrepresented because they cannot afford the high cost of legal services.

While Bloom said he is proud of the work Santa Monica has accomplished as a leader in the Bring LA Home effort, he cautioned that the plan is only the first step.

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface of the problem,” Bloom said. “When we actually start to reduce the number of people living on the street, I’ll consider that progress.”

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