Business & Economy

New fellowship aims to address shortage of LA workers on homelessness

Antonio Garcia, 27, has been homeless in Van Nuys for about two years.
Antonio Garcia, 27, has been homeless in Van Nuys for about two years. "I'm trying to hang in here," Garcia says. He's focused on teaching and helping homeless youth struggling with addiction.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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As Los Angeles County massively ramps up its systems for combatting homelessness, over a thousand related jobs have yet to be filled. 

The jobs range widely and include housekeepers, accountants, social workers, shelter staff, and outreach workers. Though the jobs will be paid for at least in part with funds from Measure H, a 1/4 cent sales tax approved last year, the positions are largely with contractors that provide social services around the county. 

Molly Rysman, homelessness deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, said it's a challenge to fill so many positions.

"Particularly because it takes a certain level of skill, and compassion and interest in the issue to be effective," she said. "The good news is there's a lot of opportunity for people who want to work on homelessness. But it's a big burden for the agencies to try to fill so many vacancies."

Government agencies, too, are struggling to handle the new workload of overseeing contracts, ensuring contractors hit their goals, and making policy decisions. 

"There's a lot of work to be done," said Maria Funk, district chief of countywide housing for L.A.'s Department of Mental Health. 

The United Way of Greater Los Angeles is launching a fellowship program to help fill the gap. Fellows, mostly with Masters Degrees, will be placed in three county departments, as well as the City of Pasadena and L.A. City Council Member Marqueece Harris Dawson's office for a year to work on homelessness. Their salaries will be funded through philanthropic dollars. 

"We're looking to bring in the next generation of leaders," said Elise Buik, CEO of the United Way of Greater L.A. "We absolutely have to think of it as a ten-year horizon."

There hasn't been much of a natural pipeline into homelessness work, particularly in governments, she said.

Funk said she came into her position almost by happenstance after working as a clinical psychologist and then in a series of other administrative positions.

"I can tell you for certain, when I was in graduate school in the '90s, we didn't learn about homelessness," she said. 

The program's intended to start as a pilot, with potential expansion on the horizon. Fellows will start in their respective offices July 1. The deadline to apply is April 1.