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LA homeless: Extra $214M to coordinate services, programs

Social services workers try to convince a homeless man to get off Skid Row and seek help around the corner at the Volunteers of America building. But it often takes many attempts to finally get someone to accept the services they need, Los Angeles Homeless Service's Authority employee Gabriel Jimenez said.
Social services workers try to convince a homeless man to get off Skid Row and seek help around the corner at the Volunteers of America building. But it often takes many attempts to finally get someone to accept the services they need, Los Angeles Homeless Service's Authority employee Gabriel Jimenez said.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

L.A. homeless organizations will be getting a $214 million boost to help expand services and ease coordination between the city and county's many groups. The news was announced Tuesday by United Way's "Home For Good" effort, which will distribute the funds to 24 homeless agencies and nonprofits. 

The new funds come from Home for Good's public and private backers, which include L.A.'s city and county housing authorities, as well as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Weingart Foundation, Carl & Roberta Deutsch Foundation and Jewish Community Foundation, among many others.

They'll go to expand city, county and veterans vouchers programs over the next 15 years, adding 1,400 such vouchers that chronic homeless and veterans can use to get off the streets. 

The bulk of the funding will go to expanding and strengthening the system that enables service providers from different agencies and nonprofits across city and county boundaries to assess and match the most vulnerable homeless to housing that's likely to meet their needs. 

Pioneered and honed in Skid Row, the system — dubbed "coordinated entry" — is now being expanded in L.A. and its approach is being adopted by 25 cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

What is "coordinated entry"? 

It might seem obvious that housing authorities would need a single way to evaluate the needs of their clientele and  to share that information. But when you also consider that many of these groups compete for funding and can be divided by jurisdictional and other boundaries, it may be less surprising that basic communication — much less an agreed-upon methodology for assessment — can be tricky. 

"I think what's tough about is that people assume this already exists," said United Way's Home For Good Director Christine Marge. "But it really is pretty groundbreaking. When you look at the before and after... When a new housing development would open up, [people] would literally stand in line overnight to fill out an application to get one of the units." 

Aside from being stressful for both prospective tenants and housing officials, that process, Marge said, often left out the most needy and vulnerable homeless — those with medical or mental health conditions. 

"They don't have the strength to go stand in that line overnight," she said. "They don't even know the line exists."

"What this system does is it really democratizes that process," Marge said. "We're looking thoughtfully from a systems perspective at 'what is the need broadly speaking across this community? How can we link the right people to the right housing? And then where in places where we see that there's not enough housing, let's ensure that we bring more of that online." 

Matching homeless needs to housing service offerings

The old system made it difficult to assess who needed what kind of housing, and to communicate that information to other city or county agencies. The new approach takes for granted that the first step to addressing the root causes of an individual's homelessness is to get them housing.

But coordinated entry takes that process a step further by matching an individual's needs to the services available. One United Way representative memorably called the system "a kind of a Match.com for housing."

In that scenario, there are basically three types of housing suitors as Marge defined them:

The coordinated entry system attempts to match homeless with the best option, Marge said, and to share that data in a single database that can be accessed across the county. 

From Skid Row across the U.S. 

The pilot for the coordinated entry system was developed in Skid Row about a year and a half ago. At about the same time, the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) came out with a requirement that regional homeless services receiving federal aid come together to establish a way to jointly assess homeless needs. 

"In Los Angeles, we took it a step further to say 'we don't just want to have a common assessment process'," Marge said. "We want a unified way to really prioritize and link people to the right housing."

With the help of the Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit who's mission is to quickly and iteratively develop solutions for NGOs and nonprofits, United Way worked with outreach workers, case managers, health workers, and others to create a new system.

"What was so unique about this project is that it was built from the ground up," said Marge. "The people who know this work the best were designing the system based on their deep knowledge of the people that they work with everyday."

The teams spent 100 days building the system, and another 100 testing it. It was then rolled out to pockets of L.A. County in November. The new funding will allow it to spread to the rest of the county. 

Meanwhile, HUD and the Veterans Administration have decided to replicate the approach across 25 U.S. cities, in their effort to end veteran and chronic homelessness.

Needless to say, L.A. will one of those 25.

"We've ironed out a lot of the kinks in the process over the last year and a half," Marge said. "We're part of a collaborative learning community where we're also sharing what we learned — the mistakes we made and how we learned from those over this time period. And we're certainly learning from them as well."