How do you prevent homelessness? LA leaders are hoping to figure that out

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As Los Angeles County kicks off its largest campaign ever to tackle homelessness, officials are also looking to stem the tide of those losing housing and ending up on the streets. 

On Monday, the county will start spending expected revenue from Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax that kicks in Oct. 1. The tax is expected to raise up to $355 million annually for all kinds of services related to homelessness — including the somewhat nascent field of homelessness prevention, which is slated to receive $45 million of investments in the first three years of the tax. 

Why prevention? L.A. County saw a 23 percent rise in homelessness this past year, raising the estimate of people homeless on any given night in the county to nearly 58,000. And that rise, significantly, came even as over 14,000 homeless individuals were placed in housing — a record number.

"It's impossible to wrap your head around that figure, it went up as much as some cities' homeless populations altogether," L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said last month. "How are we going to turn off that tap?"

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has several strategies it's planning to pursue to catch people before they fall into homelessness. Those are based on smaller scale programs Los Angeles and other cities and counties ran in the past. 

Sarah Mahin, LAHSA's director of policy and planning, said the agency first undertook prevention services with money from the federal stimulus package in 2011. Last year, LAHSA also conducted several pilots programs aimed at families who'd experienced a loss of income and were imminently losing their housing. 

Cristina Nieto, senior manager for housing at HOPICS, in South L.A. said the pilot program there was intended to serve 40 families, but ended up serving 68.

"We ran out of funding within the first four months," Nieto said. 

She said there was a wide range of people on the cusp of eviction or being kicked out of a shared home, seeking services.

"Single women, dad had recently left, and there was no second income," was a common experience, she said. 

"A lot, surprisingly, of people diagnosed with cancer, and so the doctor took them off work because they had to get treatment, and state disability wasn't enough to cover the rent so they'd gotten an eviction notice," Nieto said. "And so it's like, do I go to my cancer treatment or do I go back to work."

Nieto said the program was able to pay rent for some while they completed treatment. For others, particularly those with advanced illnesses, the goal was to find family who could take them in, and pay their way to wherever that family lives. 

The program was overall able to offer families up to six months of back-paid rent, and another maximum six months of rent to get the family stabilized. They also provided linkages to food, diapers, wipes, formula, and child care, depending on the family's needs. In some cases, the task was working with landlords to avoid an eviction. Sometimes, it was a little help for a family living with relatives, about to be kicked out because they weren't sharing the food costs. 

Small interventions were sometimes enough. 

"They're pretty sustainable after that, that's all they needed," Nieto said. 

Countywide, about 43 percent of the 179 families receiving prevention services have exited to permanent housing so far, with many more still receiving services in the system. 

Now, that program will expand to serve more families, and then early next year, to individuals as well.

The biggest quandary, Mahin said, is figuring out who to target with limited resources.

The sheer number of people in Los Angeles who live in precarious housing and are on the cusp of eviction is huge. But many will resolve their situation by themselves, without help. 

"There's not a lot of data and research that supports planning for how to effectively target prevention resources," she said. "We know there are millions of Angelenos who are facing housing crises and who are facing housing instability, but to know which of those households is going to become homeless is really challenging to predict. And there's just not enough resources to address the needs of all the unstably housed."

Previous programs have given some clues, she said. The biggest: previous episodes of homeless, no matter when they occur in a person's life, are the best predictor of future homelessness as well. 

As the agency learns more about who to target and how in the years to come, and takes care of the immediate crisis of the masses of people already living on the streets, the idea is to shift more resources to prevention, Mahin said.

"It's just a lot more costly, both a human toll as well as a financial toll on our systems of care once people become homeless to help them regain stability," she said. 

Still, local officials have acknowledged that current plans will not be enough to solve the problem. 

 "Measure H and Measure HHH can assist, but they can't prevent all that," Garcetti said. He blamed, in part, rents that "increase by double digits every year" and state law allowing landlords to raise rents to any amount when a tenant departs. 

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