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LA City and County Approve Wide-ranging Plans to Reduce Homelessness

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Los Angeles city and county leaders voted unanimously Tuesday to approve plans aimed at reducing homelessness across the region.

The City Council approved a plan that includes dozens of strategies, including a citywide system of mobile showers and public restrooms, a city homeless coordinator and investments in housing.

But the city still must figure out how to fund those plans, which include more than $1.85 billion in estimated spending on housing over the next decade.

Later Tuesday, county supervisors agreed to spend $150 million over the next two years to fund a variety of programs, including those to assist homeless people with both short- and long-term housing.

Officials and some advocates say the plans represent a renewed political will and spirit of collaboration between the two powerful local government bodies in addressing an issue that has confounded policymakers for decades.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said executing the plans “will take substantial resources, but more than that, it will take political will and moral courage.”

“I do think this is a new moment,” he said, but he acknowledged that the “question of the hour” is where the ongoing money will come from.

The county plan would commit to spending $150 million over the next two years on strategies for reducing homelessness, on top of the nearly $1 billion a year county officials estimated they spend now on health and welfare services for and law enforcement interactions with homeless residents.

The city plan sets out a long list of strategies, including housing plans that are estimated to cost more than $1.85 billion over the next decade, but city leaders have yet to determine how L.A. will fund them.

Los Angeles is spending roughly $30 million on strategies to help the homeless this year, but city officials have estimated that the total city cost of coping with homelessness — including arrests — exceeds $100 million annually.

The county and city efforts were spurred by a 2015 countywide homeless count that found more than 44,000 people living on the streets, in encampments and vehicles, an increase of 12% from 2013.

The county and cities have different roles in addressing the problem: The county runs a large public health system, administers social welfare programs, and runs the jail system, while the city of Los Angeles is responsible for land use and policing within its boundaries.

The county's plan emerged from a series of meetings with advocates, service providers and city officials last year.

It calls for spending $26 million to expand rapid rehousing programs to help homeless families into short-term housing while they are getting back on their feet.

It also designates $11 million for short-term housing, such as shelters and group homes for people coming out of county jails, hospitals and other institutions, and $8.7 million to give subsidies to disabled homeless people who have applied for Supplemental Security Income through the federal government, so they can get into housing in the meantime.

The plan also includes setting aside a significant portion of federal housing vouchers administered by the county to provide housing to people who are chronically homeless.

City Councilman Jose Huizar said the city's plan provided a blueprint for a comprehensive way of combating homelessness, one that would ensure that services were provided throughout the city rather than concentrating the homeless solely in areas such as skid row, Hollywood or Venice.

“We are turning from being reactive to proactive,” Huizar said.

Council members also stressed that many of the city strategies coordinate with the county plans, including expanding rapid rehousing programs and encouraging landlords to accept federal housing subsidies.

“It’s an unprecedented level of coordination,” City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said, describing that coordination as “the major difference between this and the past plans.”

The City Council said it wanted to press forward immediately with some of the strategies in the city plan, including standardized training for law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics on working with the homeless, creating a citywide system of mobile showers and public restrooms, and expanding pilot programs that reach out to homeless people on the street.

That committee said it wanted to fund those plans during this budget year — but did not spell out how much that would cost.

But it is unclear how much that will cost. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said some of those programs already were being funded this year, but L.A. will need to figure out whether it has added money to fund more.

The City Council also singled out more than a dozen strategies that it wants Mayor Eric Garcetti to include in his budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Last September, council President Herb Wesson and other city lawmakers announced they would devote up to $100 million to combat homelessness, but did not spell out how quickly that would happen in their written proposal. The city has yet to reach that mark: Los Angeles is expected to spend roughly $30 million this fiscal year on programs to help the homeless, Santana said. 

Garcetti has set a goal of reaching the $100 million figure in his next city budget.

Getting the money to implement all the strategies outlined in the report could require L.A. to ask voters to approve a tax increase or bond measure, the report said.

Several lawmakers have said they would be willing to ask voters to boost taxes or other revenue to get homeless people off the street. But the City Council has yet to decide on what kind of tax or other ballot measure it might pursue on the November ballot.

Gary Blasi, professor emeritus of law at UCLA, said he is concerned about whether such funding ultimately will come through. Los Angeles has had plans to tackle homelessness before, “but it’s when the topic turns to money that the conversation has always stopped,” Blasi said.

Venice Stakeholders Assn. President Mark Ryavec, whose group has been worried about how homelessness has affected the quality of life in Venice, echoed those concerns about funding.

“This is a useless exercise until they come up with the money,” Ryavec said.

City lawmakers readily agreed that the money will be essential to making the plan a reality.

“The real test for us isn’t what we’re approving today,” Councilman Mike Bonin said Tuesday. “The real test is going to be in the budget come April and May.”

The planned spending would be on top of the money the county and city spend now on providing services to homeless residents — or incarcerating them.

About 60% of the estimated $965 million in county spending on homeless adults goes into health and mental health treatment, including stays in county hospitals and psychiatric emergency rooms, with 30.5% going to welfare benefits such as food stamps and cash payments, and 9.5% to law enforcement, including jails and probation.

The city, in turn, has estimated that the police department alone spends anywhere from $53.6 million to $87.3 million annually on its interactions with homeless Angelenos — a major chunk of the estimated annual cost of homelessness to the city, Santana estimated in a report last year.

This article by Abby Sewll and Emily Alpert Reyes was originally published March 9, 2016 in The Los Angeles Times.

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