New law could speed up help for LA's homeless

Antonio Garcia, 27, has been homeless in Van Nuys for about two years.
Antonio Garcia, 27, has been homeless in Van Nuys for about two years. "I'm trying to hang in here," Garcia says. He's focused on teaching and helping homeless youth struggling with addiction.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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A bill making its way through the California legislature would eliminate what L.A. County officials call a "major barrier" to helping homeless quickly and effectively. 

Assembly Bill 210, written by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles, would allow county agencies to share some information about homeless clients with each other. It would also allow workers in various agencies to collaborate to get a person housed. The bill, which unanimously passed the California State Assembly last month, heads to the Senate Tuesday for its first hearing.

Currently, said Phil Ansell, head of L.A. County's homeless initiative, state law goes well beyond federal privacy protections when it comes to sharing information.

"The current restrictions are a major barrier," Ansell said.

For instance, the county's Chief Executive Office has compiled information on homeless individuals who are incurring high costs by using public hospital emergency rooms and other county services at high rates. 

"But we're not allowed to share the information that we have about those people with the various agencies that are engaged with them," Ansell said. "They impede our ability to maximize collaboration."

If the law passes, a homeless service provider who encounters a person on the street could quickly learn whether or not the person already has a mental health provider, or is on probation, or is involved with the child welfare agency. That, in turn, would mean being able to identify the appropriate supports for that person—such as housing programs available only to probationers or mental health clients—quickly. 

Similarly, county workers, encountering an individual who is homeless, could reach out to service providers for help with housing.

Santiago said the bill is a must-pass as L.A. County dramatically ramps up its resources for fighting homelessness. Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax for homeless services, kicks in Oct. 1, though the county will begin spending its projected revenues in July. Proposition HHH, a city bond measure, will also provide $120 million annually for constructing homeless housing over the next decade. 

"So as all these resources are coming online, the county has the inability to coordinate between departments and agencies on the issue of homelessness," he said. 

Asked about privacy protections for the homeless individuals, Ansell said the same confidentiality and privacy protections would apply to their health and welfare information, but more individuals would have access to the information. The county would also still be bound by any federal privacy protections on health information.