Politics

Challenges remain as LA looks to expand homeless shelters

File: Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter has 110 beds. It's the only homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley.
File: Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter has 110 beds. It's the only homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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County officials have stepped up their interest in closing a major gap in L.A.'s homeless services: an estimated shortfall of over 2,000 shelter beds.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is already considering converting a 170-bed winter shelter in the Sylmar Armory into a year-round homeless shelter. On Tuesday, they'll take up a proposal to study rapidly expanding shelters countywide.

"We need to provide a comprehensive direction on how to move forward for each of our County-funded emergency shelters immediately," said Supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda Solis in their joint motion. They went on to call for lower barriers for accessing shelters, like accepting pets and expanding hours of operation. 

Chris Callandrillo, director of programs at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said despite expansions in the past year, the current shelter infrastructure is at capacity.

The agency is in talks with the state to use the Sylmar Armory as a shelter for single adults. Supervisors have also noted other winter shelters may be able to expand to year-round services. Those shelters, which are generally big rooms with cots, would not be appropriate for families, Callandrillo said. 

The board's request, should it pass, calls for a plan to rapidly increase shelter beds and potential ways to pay for the new beds. On March 7, the county's voters will take up Measure H, a 1/4-cent sales tax to fund homeless services, one potential source of revenue. 

Callandrillo said the agency pays $30 per night for each year-round shelter bed, about half the cost of operating the beds.

Current shelter operators say an expansion is needed.

"We're it for 70 miles," said Sue Broulik, assistant director of Grace Resources' Lancaster shelter, which is the only homeless shelter in the area. The organization's 39-bed winter shelter has been running at 98 percent capacity this season, according to county data, experiencing 48 nights where it exceeded its contracted bed space.

In the San Gabriel Valley, one winter shelter is forced to jump from church to church every few weeks. It has been at 95 percent capacity this season, going over capacity on 37 nights. 

"We don't turn anyone away," said Bob Mckennon, a volunteer who operates the shelter for the East San Gabriel Valley Coalition for the Homeless.

Mckennon said demand for shelter beds is certainly increasing, but the task of building the infrastructure could be tough. This isn't the first time his organization or others in the county have tried and failed.

"When it came to being able to establish any form of year-round shelter, we were never able to accomplish that because of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) aspect," Mckennon said. "The cities were willing to support a program like that in another city, but not within their own."

In his 25 or so years working with homeless, Mckennon said, this dynamic has always been a problem.

He recommended county officials try to engage the private sector more in supporting and financing shelters as the homeless population continues to grow. 

Lack of shelter space has also been at the root of some lawsuits against the City of L.A. regarding treatment of homeless camping out on sidewalks and living in cars. Attorneys for homeless have successfully argued that if the city has nowhere to send homeless people, it can't prohibit people from living outdoors.