Task force report: Los Angeles can end homelessness in five years

File photo: An unemployed and homeless man reads a bible near a freeway exit in Los Angeles on March 6, 2009.
File photo: An unemployed and homeless man reads a bible near a freeway exit in Los Angeles on March 6, 2009.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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Nearly 50,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County – a population that’s about the same size as Azusa. A new report by a task force commissioned by the United Way and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce says we can cut the number of homeless by 70 percent or more in only five years.

The report is called “Home For Good.” Below that title, it says “The Action Plan to End Chronic and Veteran Homelessness by 2016.”

It can’t happen? Los Angeles attorney Jerry Neuman believes it can, and it’s happening around the country and overseas.

"In Denver, [there's] around 70 percent reduction in homelessness," said Neuman. "In New York, over 80 percent reduction in homeless; in Philadelphia, in the high 70s in terms of the reduction of homelessness; in London, over 90 percent."

Neuman said it happened in those cities because they were smart – and he says it can happen here if we’re smart, too.

Neuman is the co-chair of the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness. L.A. County is the nation’s homelessness capital – home, you might say, to about 48,000 homeless.

The Task Force report out today says between government money and charitable giving, we spend close to a billion dollars a year on the homeless in L.A. County. About 75 percent of that money goes to about 25 percent of the homeless.

"In the 25 percent is predominantly chronic homeless people," said Neuman. "There’s about 12,000 chronically homeless people, meaning people who lived on the streets for longer than a year."

Neumann said in Los Angeles, the goal has been to get housing for the chronically homeless – but not the extra help they need.

The report from Task Force on Homelessness says try this instead: identify the chronically homeless and figure out what they need. It’s not only an apartment. It might be treatment for alcoholism or some other addiction; maybe it’s mental health care – or just health care. And Neuman said you then talk with the chronically homeless.

"We’re gonna work with you to get a home – an apartment, a place to live, a roof over your head. And once you have that, we’re gonna provide services around you that will support you in your endeavor to become a vital member of society. And what we’ve seen is across the country, that model is successful no matter where it’s implemented. And we believe with the right tweaks with the right way of doing it, it can be implemented and be successful in Los Angeles."

And once there's enough help for the chronically homeless, Neuman said everything else starts to fall into place. You don’t spend more money; you just spend what you’ve got smarter.

"What we’re saying is that if we can help the chronically homeless, we’re freeing up even more money to help those families or individuals who find themselves by circumstance all of a sudden homeless. And where we don’t have enough money today to take care of them, all of a sudden we’ve freed up that money to better take care of those individuals who find themselves in times of need."

That other 75 percent of L.A. County’s homeless aren’t mentally ill; they can keep a job if they get one. They’ve hit a rough spot and they’ll bounce back – with a little help. The Task Force report says Los Angeles city and county can get the money for that if they first tackle chronic homelessness smarter.

Neuman says L.A. County could solve a lot of the problem if agencies in charge of supportive housing already in place give priority to the chronically homeless. There would still need to build more housing units – but the number would be in the hundreds per year, not thousands.

Neuman said he was impressed by what he called a "really phenomenal outreach program" set up in Denver.

"Law enforcement became ambassadors to the homeless community as well as to the homeless service providers," said Neuman. "So rather than just taking them to jail as a first course, they were able to say, 'Hey, we have someone with these issues, and the proper service provider is X' – and immediately taking that person, instead of to jail, to Facility X."

Neuman said it was better for the homeless person in need, and it saved the city of Denver, its police and local hospitals a terrific amount of money. And, he said, L.A. can do it here.