Los Angeles Strategizes How to End Homelessness
Faced with deepening public concern over the growing homeless crisis, both Los Angeles city and county in early January issued major plans. The more ambitious was from Los Angeles City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, a 237-page “Comprehensive Homeless Strategy” presenting a ten-year plan to reduce homelessness in the city to zero. The County posted a 113-page unsigned document titled “Draft Recommended Strategies to Combat Homelessness” that offered funding on a range of homeless-related issues for the year ahead.
Both documents contain many good ideas, make clear how complex the homeless population is, with its many distinct components, each with different needs, and propose spending very large amounts of money. We all hope the money and commitment will be found to follow through on this long-term project. Many of us remember the last ten-year plan to end homelessness. Called Bring L.A. Home, it was announced with much fanfare in 2003. It largely died by 2005, and today there are more citizens living on the streets than ever.
Types of Homeless and How They Are Sheltered or Housed
The homeless are divided, for good reasons, into several subgroups: families with children, teenage youth timing out of the foster care system at 18, recently released convicts who hit the streets with no job or prospects, the mentally ill or addicted, and the physically disabled. Within these groups there is a distinction between the recently homeless, who had been managing on their own until some setback put them on the street, and the chronic homeless, those who have lived on the streets for at least a year, or who have been homeless four times in the last three years. Of the city’s 26,000 homeless about 8,000 are chronic street dwellers; 47% of this number are homeless youths.
In addition, city and county agencies fund a prevention program offering aid to families or individuals on the verge of homelessness, due to illness, death of a breadwinner, or loss of a job. For the not-yet-homeless there can be full or partial rent subsidies, payment of the security deposit on a new place to live, or a contribution to utility bills.
The biggest dividing line is between those generally able to function if they can regain a footing in a place to live, and the mentally ill and addicted. The victory of the deinstitutionalsation movement in the mid-1970s closed most of the long-term mental institutions and secured a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that mentally ill persons could not be confined against their will unless they were proven to be violent. This was supposed to be followed with local community-based mental health care, which was never adequately funded. The result is what L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez calls open-air asylums.
Housing is the key element in getting homeless camps off the streets. To succeed, there must also be a substantial support network, beginning with the fairly new Coordinated Entry System (CES), which is trying to replace the patchwork of available housing offers from a large number of city and government agencies, nonprofits, charities, and churches. The CES is trying to establish a centralized database of applicants for housing and other services, and to prioritize them for distributing what limited housing is available.
The city, county, state, and federal governments fund several kinds of housing. There are emergency shelters, just to get off the streets for a few days. A Winter Shelter program offers beds for up to 90 days during the winter months. There is a Rapid Rehousing program, aimed mainly at families with children and people who have a good chance of getting back into market-rate housing with a few months’ help.
There are two programs that are mainly for the chronic homeless: Transitional Housing and Bridge Housing. These typically offer a place to live for about 13 months. They differ in that when Transitional Housing times out there is no direct link to more long-term housing, while Bridge Housing promises a step into Permanent Supportive Housing. This last is a long-term place to live supplemented by case management, health and mental health services, and, if practical, job training.
Most long-term housing is funded by federal Section 8 vouchers issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under these, recipients typically pay 30% of their income as rent, the voucher paying the difference. Only a portion of these go to homeless people. HUD, which also funds programs specifically for the homeless, has concluded on the basis of studies, that Permanent Supportive Housing is by far the most effective means to get chronic homeless people off the streets. In consequence they are cutting back sharply in funding for emergency shelters and Transitional Housing (2,000 beds per year have lost their funding in Los Angles).
In effect, Permanent Supportive Housing is the modern replacement for the old mental institutions. Even though the mentally ill are not confined to these domiciles as in the old asylums, those who get into this kind of housing mostly stay there. They have an 85-90 percent retention rate over a number of years.
Building New Permanent Supportive Housing and What It Costs
The media have been reporting that the City Administrator’s plan is to cost $1.85 billion over 10 years’ time, or about $185 million a year, far above the mayor’s current promise of raising $100 million for this year. The report itself offers this figure as the minimum, for the physical units of Permanent Supportive Housing alone. This is by far the largest cost but not by any means the only one.
Annual costs for other housing support, which is unlikely to entirely disappear, include emergency shelter beds ($18,250 per bed); Rapid Re-Housing ($11,500 per household); Transitional Housing, to be mainly substituted by Bridge Housing ($29,200 per bed); and homeless prevention ($3,500 per household). These costs would be sharply reduced as permanent housing comes online.
Currently the city operates 7,690 beds in Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). The report proposes adding 9,050 beds in studios, and 1 and 2 bedroom apartments. In the long run, building new units or renovating older ones is cheaper than leasing from private landlords. There is also the fear that if the city begins to rent thousands of apartments it will drive up our city’s already exorbitant rates.
However, if the funding can be secured, it would still take several years to build a significant part of the planned expansion. In the interim the city would lease living space in the private market. Through year six of the ten-year plan, leasing costs would be more than the construction costs.
The annual projected costs of combined leasing and construction would begin in year one at $67 million, and rise each year thereafter, to an annual $100 million in year two, $197.7 million in year 5, and be well over $200 million a year for each of the last five years. The total for the ten years is the much quoted $1.865 billion.
So at best, in place of the still unfulfilled promise by Mayor Garcetti to raise $100 million one time for one year, to complete the City Administrator’s plan would have the last five years of construction running at $225-250 million a year. And when the 9,000 beds in new units are complete, they add an annual operating cost in supportive services and maintenance of $12,000 per bed, or $108 million.
It is a bit discouraging, then, when Miguel Santana in his cover letter to the mayor and City Council, writes:
“Given the City’s financial constraints due to extraordinary expenditures for liability claims, it is unlikely that we will be able to identify a significant amount of additional funding on an interim basis beyond the $15 million already appropriated.”
The mayor has said that to raise the large amounts needed would require ballot measures for a new tax or new bonds. This puts a large question mark over the whole plan, given the history of our stingy electorate.
What the County Plans to Do
The County had already pledged to raise and spend $51 million in the next year on homelessness. Their new Draft Recommended Strategies ups the ante on this to $149,700,000. Their document does not contain a multi-year plan and is all one-time allocations. The County generally has more available money than the city, so its proposal seems to have defined funding sources.
What is striking about the County proposal is that the $149 million is spread over no less than 52 different projects, giving each one a relatively small cut of the pie. These include the ones discussed above, such as subsidies for homeless prevention, Rapid Re-Housing, and Bridge Housing. Projects then range from funding for foster care discharges to additional Section 8 vouchers for released convicts to promote family reunification, a subsidized employment program for the homeless, an SSI advocacy program to win disability benefits, a veterans’ advocacy program, a criminal clearing project under Proposition 47, substance abuse treatment, and enhanced data sharing. There is also funding for a pilot program to offer incentives to encourage single family home owners to build second-unit mother-in-law cottages on their property.
While all of these are worthwhile, small one-time amounts of funding spread so widely are not likely to have a major impact on the number of homeless.