Struggling to contain growing homelessness in Los Angeles, city and county officials on Tuesday asked for help from Secretary Julian Castro of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In a public meeting held at the County Hall of Administration, Castro said he wanted to provide L.A. officials with “technical assistance, advice and perspectives from what we’ve seen in other communities.”
“When it comes to ensuring we can meet the president’s goal of effectively eliminating homelessness, including veteran homelessness, as goes L.A., so goes the nation,” Castro said.
Castro’s visit comes weeks after local officials announced a renewed commitment to fighting homelessness in the face of growing numbers. Countywide, there are more than 44,000 people living on the street — a rise of 12 percent over the last couple years. The city of L.A. saw the same increase.
Members of the City Council say they are working on a $100 million plan to combat homelessness. County supervisors this month voted to boost spending on homelessness to $100 million for the year. Earlier, Mayor Eric Garcetti had said he would release a blueprint to end homelessness in August.
HUD, which provides local governments with funds to build housing for the homeless, is seen as a vital partner to alleviating the crisis.
During the meeting, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl took issue with how HUD gives out money to different regions. She explained counties with high numbers of homeless are penalized, and receive less federal money. Kuehl said L.A. County's homeless crisis is driven by its high cost of living, which sets it apart from most other parts of the U.S.
“In many pockets of the county, the housing costs keep going up,” Kuehl said. “We’re punished because so many people are falling out because of the cost of housing.”
Councilmember Mike Bonin told Castro that the city is hurting from HUD's decision to narrow its funding priorities. Bonin said as a result there are fewer resources to keep young adults, families and survivors of domestic violence out of homelessness.
"I ask you to be our calvary and take a look at HUD policies to make sure we have those range of tools," Bonin said.
Officials also requested more federal housing vouchers to help veterans and others stay off the street. But Garcetti said that the housing market is so tight that vouchers are proving useless for some homeless veterans.
"We have 533 vets on the streets with vouchers and they can't find a place to live," Garcetti said. "We're working with local landlords to try to appeal to them to open up their vacant apartments."
Castro, who had initiated a meeting through Garcetti, did not directly respond to officials’ requests, saying “more than anything else, I’m here this morning to listen.”
He did indicate several times that HUD approved of the way that local elected officials were tackling homelessness.
He praised county supervisors and city officials for “recognizing that criminalizing homelessness is not the best approach. That is something that HUD has recognized very firmly.”
Steve Diaz, a Skid Row advocate with Los Angeles Community Action Network, disagreed with Castro’s characterization. He said that local officials have criminalized homelessness, noting that a city report showed that most of the city funds spent on homelessness were directed toward policing.
Diaz said he found it promising that Castro wanted to address homelessness, but he added the meeting with local officials was more "political rhetoric than actual engagement and commitment towards addressing the issue."
This story has been updated.