Business & Economy

LA officials debate how to spend $355 million to combat homelessness

Victoria Burton, 44, has been homeless in the Antelope Valley since October. Burton waits in line for shelter on Tuesday afternoon, May 31, 2016 at Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter.
Victoria Burton, 44, has been homeless in the Antelope Valley since October. Burton waits in line for shelter on Tuesday afternoon, May 31, 2016 at Grace Resource Center's Lancaster Community Homeless Shelter.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Public officials and homeless advocates in Los Angeles, poised on the brink of a windfall in funds to combat homelessness, began debating how to use that money Thursday – but they're still far away from making any firm decisions.

Officials are on two tight timelines: money from Measure H, a voter-approved, quarter-cent sales tax, is expected to start rolling in come July, when the new fiscal year begins, and they need a plan for how to spend it. The other time crunch is self-imposed—proponents of the sales tax promised to house 45,000 people and prevent another 30,000 from entering homelessness in the first few years of ten-year tax. 

"I'm optimistic," said Phil Ansell, head of L.A. County's homeless initiative shortly after Thursday's meeting. "Overall I feel very encouraged by today's conversation."

That said, the process is anything but straightforward. A fifty-member panel has been tasked with dolling out $355 million in projected funds to 19 different strategies with wide-ranging purposes.

The panel was tasked to come to a tentative agreement on funding for ten of those strategies Thursday, but came to a preliminary consensus on only a few.

"I'm not sure if we're all on the same page what the priority is," said Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership, and a member of the Measure H panel. "I think the voters wanted to see that local encampment addressed and the local problems in their neighborhood addressed immediately."

But does that mean investing in more emergency shelters—or prioritizing the slower, but more long-term solution of permanent housing? And should more funding go to getting families off the streets or the mentally ill? And how much money should go to preventing people who are on the verge of homelessness from falling into the brink?

"These are key cross-cutting questions," Ansell said. And one that the group has large discretion over, though the L.A. County Board of Supervisors must ultimately approve the funding plan.

Chris Ko, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said the competing tension between immediate relief and long term planning is one to manage, but not fear.

"The thing in alignment is, the people in encampments right now are looking for long-term solutions," Ko said. "A lot of them are there because they've been denying the more piecemeal solutions we've put before them. So it's going to take a lot of the more permanent things for them to come inside."

The committee hopes to reach a consensus on funding decisions in May, so the L.A. County Board of Supervisors can vote on the final plan in June.