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Report Outlines Homeless Strategy

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 16 -- Somewhere between $1.9 billion and $4.3 billion is how much it may ultimately cost to eradicate homelessness in Los Angeles County, which at 88,000 claims the nation’s largest concentration of the homeless.

And Santa Monica, dubbed “the home of the homeless,” may be the model for key programs aimed at Downtown Los Angeles, where a large portion of that money ultimately could be spent.

That's according to a draft copy of a final report due out March 30 by Bring LA Home, a panel of 60 regional officials who have toiled away for almost three years on the most extensive and comprehensive plan ever to halt homelessness in Los Angeles County.

“It is simply not acceptable to have people living on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not fit for human habitation in Los Angeles County,” the report concluded.

“We know that what we have been doing to address homelessness is not enough, and that the cost of our current situation is much too high.”

After nearly a nine-month delay, the report – which was obtained by The Lookout – serves as an overarching blueprint to coordinate a response between 88 communities that represent nearly 10 million people, one of the largest countywide populations in the nation.

The report outlines seven guiding principals and seven lofty goals, some of which call for radical change. The principals include:

  • Preventing homelessness,
  • Addressing the causes of the problem,
  • Sustaining and building on current services,
  • Helping people who have recently become homeless quickly get back on their feet
  • Overcoming the stigma of being homeless and helping them enter the mainstream of society,
  • Ensuring a regional approach to the crisis and
  • Reaffirming that housing is a basic human right.

With an emphasis on a regional approach, the plan's most controversial point -- which was reportedly debated among panelists up until a week ago -- calls for the financing of between 11,500 and 50,000 new units of affordable housing.

While some panelists have said that 50,000 units would be the preferable goal, they note that starting with 11,500 units may be more realistic.

In addition to housing, the plan calls for reorganizing and better coordinating mental heath, law enforcement and social service systems and aggressively pursuing state and federal funding.

It also calls for overhauling the County's lead agency on homelessness -- the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) -- and making it more of an advocacy organization with increased accountability.

While the plan does not specify how to revamp LAHSA, news reports suggest there is momentum gaining among officials to make the agency more accountable by restructuring the board and how members are appointed.

In recent months, LAHSA has experienced a series of accounting blunders that left service providers without funds, and in one case, found millions of dollars the agency apparently misplaced.

Bring LA Home officials also advocate reexamining the current social service model -- commonly called the Continuum of Care -- and suggest possible new approaches and strategies to be used with the current model, including placing some of the homeless in subsidized supportive housing before they receive services.

The approach -- known as "Housing First" -- is already underway in cities such as New York and San Francisco and was embraced by Santa Monica officials in mid 2005.

In fact, Santa Monica may serve as a model for cleaning up the most notorious swathe of homelessness in Downtown Los Angeles -- Skid Row, which comprises 50-square blocks Downtown.

Known as ground zero for the County’s homeless, Skid Row is also refuge to countless criminals who take advantage of the down and out, the report said.

Skid Row "has become renowned for the number of people living in squalor on the streets, open drug dealing and drug use, prostitution, and loan sharking that preys on the thousands of people living," in the area, said the draft.

"There is a high prevalence of persons with mental illness who frequently use drugs to control their symptoms, and who, because of their illness, easily fall prey to criminals in the area,” the report stated.

“Adding to the chaos are untold numbers of people referred or physically taken to the area because it has services not found elsewhere in the County."

In conjunction with "housing first," the plan calls for following another strategy being tried in Santa Monica, which targets the most hard-core homeless on Skid Row -- called the chronically homeless. That strategy will be put into play in the first few months in Los Angeles' Downtown.

Comprised mostly of older men, the chronically homeless population has usually been on the street the longest and often battles various addictions and mental health problems, or both.

In the first six months, the City of Los Angeles will launch an intensive outreach program in the central city modeled after Santa Monica’s project, which moves the chronically homeless into housing with services, according to the report.

Housing First advocates contend that renting apartments within a supportive setting will actually save taxpayer dollars by cutting down on expensive visits to area emergency rooms, as well as on police and paramedic services.

"Doing nothing", says the report, is actually more expensive.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department estimates that it spends approximately $32 million each year on responses to the homeless, which does not include local law enforcement or emergency medical responses, according to the report.

"Hospitalization is 49 times more costly than supportive housing,” while "jail is 47 percent more costly," the report said.

"One month’s stay in a mental hospital could pay for about 20 months in supportive housing," according to a study cited in the report. In addition, "one day in the hospital could pay for more than 45 days in supportive housing."

Santa Monica is expected to spend the lion’s share of a $1 million dollar federal grant on rent to help 31 of the seaside city's most street-hardened homeless over the next year, according to the report.

As the program grows in Santa Monica, its cost could surpass $10 million in funding -- significantly more than is currently allocated for all of the City’s social service providers put together.

In the coming year, the Skid Row Collaborative, led by Skid Row Housing Trust, will conduct the first local evaluation of the fiscal impact of supportive housing on county systems for chronically homeless individuals served by a Interagency Council on Homelessness grant, said the report.

Law enforcement is another key component of the plan, which calls for "community courts" downtown and throughout Los Angeles County to divert the addicted and mentally ill into courts where they can receive special attention.

An important, and debated, recommendation calls for law enforcement to get tough on misdemeanors and establish zones across the county where an offense, such as drug dealing, would bring added punishment.

However, the get tough approach could be hampered by successful lawsuits brought in the last few years by the American Civil Liberties Union, which maintain that it is unlawful to specifically tailor laws which target the homeless.

Above all, the plan’s success will come down to money, officials said.

In July 2005, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors committed $20 million in capital funding to expand homeless shelters.

In November 2005, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa announced a commitment to add $50 million to the City’s Housing Trust Fund for permanent supportive housing for Los Angeles’ neediest residents.

In December 2005, HUD announced the annual awards for local Homeless Continuum of Care grants. Los Angeles Continuum of Care (LACoC), which includes the City and County of Los Angeles -- excluding the cities of Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale -- received its largest award ever, totaling $60,408,441. The award included a $6.3 million bonus to Los Angeles County because its highest priority was providing permanent housing for chronically homeless persons.

Finally, extensive planning for use of the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63) funding promises more opportunities to leverage monies for homeless programs for people with mental disabilities. Santa Monica officials hope to carve out some of the funding for Westside mental health services.

"It will only work if we get the funding we need to do this," said a source close to the Bring LA Home initiative.

Ten years from now will Los Angeles County still have people living on the street? Probably, officials said. But how many can be reached between now and then is the question.

“We believe that ending homelessness requires more than a plan,” the report stated. “It requires a series of efforts by a variety of stakeholders with a common mission and vision, and shared goals.

“The Bring LA Home Plan sets the initial direction – providing a framework and key strategies – of our campaign to end homelessness.”

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