Los Angeles weighs in on homelessness in doubleheader meetings

A man walks beside a row of tents for the homeless in Los Angeles.
A man walks beside a row of tents for the homeless in Los Angeles.

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Plans by the city and county to reduce homelessness got public airings Wednesday, as hundreds of people showed up for a pair of meetings organized to get community input.

County and city officials were praised for making homelessness a top priority and working collaboratively. Homeless populations grew by 12 percent in both the county and city over the last couple years, in sharp contrast to an overall decline in homelessness nationwide.

But homeless advocates worried that some people on the streets would still slip through the cracks, despite the best of efforts.

At the county level, officials have a multi-prong approach to helping homeless people that includes increasing job opportunities, improving case management services and developing permanent supportive housing.

The Board of Supervisors has already set aside $100 million to spend on homelessness this coming year. Staff recommend that the largest slice of the pie go to rent subsidies for homeless people — more than $36 million. Phil Ansell, the county administrator charged with overseeing homeless initiatives, said that 'rapid rehousing' subsidies are intended to help in the short-term, generally not longer than six months.

Most homeless people, “have the ability, if they get the help they need now, to be able to pay for the cost of their own housing without a subsidy going forward,” Ansell said.

But some homeless advocates worry that that rapid re-housing does little to help people who need extra services in their living situations such as people with disabilities, young people coming out of foster care and survivors of domestic violence.

“Rapid re-housing doesn’t work for everyone,” said Elizabeth Eastlund of San-Pedro based Rainbow Services, which operates domestic violence shelters. “This is not a one-size-fits-all model.”

At City Hall, the Homelessness and Poverty Committee also met in the afternoon to discuss the city’s new “Comprehensive Homeless Strategy” document. City staff say Los Angeles must be prepared to spend at least $1.85 million fighting homelessness over 10 years to make a difference.

City officials opened the floor to public comment. Criticism of the report clustered around three main issues: domestic violence, the need for decriminalization of homelessness and the lack of enough affordable permanent housing.

Bari Goldojarb of the Good Shepherd Shelter took issue with what she felt was a lack of attention given to domestic violence in the report. She said “domestic violence” only appeared twice in the more than 200-page report, and said “domestic violence accounts for 21 percent of homelessness in Los Angeles, so for it to only be mentioned twice in this entire report was… it was terrifying, it was, it was really really scary.”

Pete White addressed the need for decriminalization, saying, “LAPD is in Skid Row right now citing and arresting people for things like sleeping, sitting and sheltering themselves from El Niño. What we need is not handcuffs, but house keys.”

Becky Dennison of Venice Community Housing said the report doesn’t do enough to address the lack of housing in the city, telling the committee, “that means you all dedicating both money and city-owned land, which is in the plan, to help spur the production of housing at a drastically increased level."

Because the timing of the meetings overlapped, the logistics of attending both was "pretty challenging," said Stephanie Klasky-Gamer of L.A. Family Housing. But she said it was important for her organization to have representatives at both. 
"I’m impressed by the collaborative spirit in the development of the policies and recommendations in these plans," said Klasky-Gamer, whose agency provides homeless services and develops permanent housing.     

An overriding question is how the city and county will be able to afford the dozens of recommended strategies to stamp out homelessness, such as building more housing - a costly and time-consuming proposition. At the city level, politicians are talking about putting a bond issue before taxpayers. Klasky-Gamer said the residents "need to do more to support the housing demands in our city."

"Housing must be perceived as an infrastructure issue, and we do infrastructure bonds in every other category," Klasky-Gamer said.

This story has been updated.