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LA County finds housing key to tackling ex-felon problem

A homeless person sleeps covered with a blanket on a sidewalk near Skid Row in Los Angeles, California on May 12, 2015. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

This month, L.A. County's Probation Department will start paying the rent for hundreds of homeless probationers. "Breaking Barriers" may be the first criminal justice program of its kind in the nation.

Under a program administered by the county's Department of Health Services, 300 homeless ex-felons under the supervision of a probation officer will get a case manager, employment services, any substance abuse and mental health services they need, and a permanent home in a rental property. The program will cost probation $4.2 million of its own funds, which will be paired with a $2 million donation from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

"You might bear some significant costs up front, but the assumption is it's more of an investment, because the individuals will then not continue to cycle through the criminal justice system," said Assistant Probation Chief Margarita Perez.

Moving ex-cons from transitional to permanent housing

The program will target high and medium risk offenders recently out of state prison. Under 2011's AB 109 realignment law, those offenders are supervised by county probation departments, as are offenders on felony probation. Of the 8,000 AB 109-ers under supervision in L.A. County, about 1,400 are homeless.

Previously, such offenders were steered into 90-day transitional housing with services, and were then expected to move on. Perez said that wasn't working. 

"Especially for some of these folks who have significant substance abuse issues or mental health issues, or significant medical issues," she said. "Ninety days isn't sufficient time to enable anybody, really, to address all of the issues needed to stabilize these folks." 

The new program moves offenders into permanent homes and pays the rent — or a portion of it, depending on their need level — for up to two years. From there, it hopes to match them with supportive services to help them find jobs and become self-sufficient. 

Tyler Fong, program manager with Brilliant Corners, a nonprofit hired to find housing for the participants, said people who work in social services have known for years that being homeless is essentially a full-time job.

"That takes up a huge percentage of someone's time, and stress, and effort, that they aren't able to focus on improving their lives," he said.

A model for county service frequent flyers

Fong also works on Housing for Health, a county health department program up and running for about two years. It gives longterm rental support to patients who frequent the public health system.

That approach attracted the attention of the Probation Department, which asked to make use of the same structure to work with its own population. DHS Director Mitch Katz has said he wants to eventually make 10,000 rental subsidy vouchers available to homeless Angelenos who are frequent users of county services. 

Peggy Edwards, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Reentry Partnership, called the program a step in the right direction.

"The criminal justice part of the county has not been learning lessons learned from the social services and health care side," she said. Hopefully, she added, that's changing with this program. 

The RAND Corporation will evaluate the program. If it's successful, probation hopes to expand it with more county funding. 

Housing initiative becoming central to LA's approach

Mark Trotz, who administers Housing for Health and is helping run probation's program, said he understands people may not like the idea of paying the rent for one-time criminals.

"Society's paying for it one way or another," he said. "And the cost of a year in jail or prison costs way more than a year in supportive housing."

Probation isn't the only county department either utilizing Housing for Health vouchers or funding their own programs through the DHS. The Department of Mental Health and Department of Public Social Services also run similar programs. Trotz said DHS has also garnered interest in the child welfare system and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. 

Increasingly, social service agencies are seeing stable housing as a key to what they're trying to accomplish, he said. And federal funds for housing have been going down, not up. 

"I think it's pretty obvious to most people just how pivotal a place to live can be, to store your medicine, to go home at night and sleep, to get away from the noise, to go to the bathroom, to store your things," he said. "That's what housing is."