Politics

LA voters might be asked to help the homeless — by raising taxes

Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter has 110 beds. It's the only homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley.
Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter has 110 beds. It's the only homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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L.A. County, looking for millions of dollars to fund its plan to eradicate homelessness, will likely turn to voters for a way to raise the cash.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and incoming Supervisor Janice Hahn have co-authored a motion to put a quarter-cent sales tax up for voter approval in March. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the idea Tuesday at their regular meeting. Should it make its way to the March ballot, the measure would require support from two-thirds of voters to become law.

The proposal comes up just a month after voters in the City of Los Angeles approved a $1.2 billion bond measure, HHH, to pay for building up to 10,000 units of housing for homeless. The county proposal, which could raise as much as $355 annually, would fund services to pair with that housing, as well as programs aimed at preventing homelessness and mitigating its negative effects.  

Homeless advocates, who see this as their best and biggest chance in decades to fund overwhelmed services, are throwing their full weight behind the proposal. 

"We're in a moral state of emergency," said Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas, vice chairman of the L.A. Homeless Services Authority. "Seeing the number of people who sleep out on the street every night, it's not a political issue, it's a humanitarian issue."

Last winter's point-in-time count tallied about 47,000 homeless in L.A. County—74 percent of them unsheltered, meaning living on the street or in cars, as opposed to homeless shelters and programs. 

Farkas, along with leaders of dozens of other homeless advocacy and service groups submitted a letter Thursday urging supervisors to pass the proposal and get it on the March ballot. 

A similar tax proposal failed to gain the four required votes back in July. At that time, outgoing supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe voted against it. Their successors, Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn, who officially take office on Monday, authored portions of the new proposal. Spokespersons for supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas said they planned to support it. 

"This is all about providing ongoing funds for critical, wraparound, supportive services for the tens of thousands of homeless people living in unspeakable conditions," said Ridley-Thomas. "We have a viable plan and an opportunity to restore dignity to those who've been marginalized for far too long."

Hahn issued a statement, which read in part: "The County has developed a comprehensive plan to address this tragedy, but without the revenue to sustain these programs, our effort to end homelessness will fail, as other well-intended efforts have in the past.  We must face this challenge head on.   That is why I co-sponsored the motion to place a sales tax on the ballot in March to generate the revenue needed to end homelessness in Los Angeles County. 

The change at the board of supervisors could indicate a new approach to serving L.A.'s homeless. The county government, which the board controls, is the main provider of services like health care, mental health care, child welfare, and other programs aimed at the very poor. 

For decades, county leadership has not been on the same page on how to leverage those resources and raise funds for new ones to tackle L.A.'s growing homeless problem. Often, they disagreed philosophically over how to best and most fairly help people.

In February, the board unanimously approved 47 strategies to tackle homelessness and dedicated $100 million to the cause. But they disagreed over how to fund the plan going forward.

The county's Chief Executive Office estimates the plan requires about $450 million annually to succeed, which is more than the tax would raise. Homeless advocates said they hope the county will chip in the difference from its general fund. 

"This represents boldness. It's saying, we're not just going to manage the problem anymore, but really attempt to cut the roots off," said Chris Ko of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. 

In the past, he said, there's always been disagreements over how to allocate limited resources. 

"We're so used to having to argue for one population over another, or this priority versus that priority," he said. "This finally recognizes every single person is a priority and every single intervention is important."

Currently, most people in L.A. pay a 9 percent tax on their purchases, though some cities like South Gate, Compton and Culver City, among others, have slightly higher sales taxes due to various voter initiatives over the years. The proposed tax would raise the base to 9.25 percent.