Politics

Where your tax dollars are going in LA's fight against homelessness

L.A. County's five supervisors celebrated the first year of Measure H Tuesday and announced how they'll spend $400 million on homelessness in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
L.A. County's five supervisors celebrated the first year of Measure H Tuesday and announced how they'll spend $400 million on homelessness in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Rina Palta/KPCC

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The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved plans to spend $400 million in the fiscal year that begins in July to combat homelessness. The money comes from Measure H, the 1/4-cent sales tax voters passed last year.

So what exactly to spend it on?

The answer: A whole host of services and housing that the supervisors think are key to getting people off the streets for good. Officials believe that one year in, L.A. is largely on track to meet Measure H's promises of housing 45,000 homeless people and preventing another 30,000 from becoming homeless by 2022. 

"The outcomes we've achieved so far are very promising and very encouraging," said Phil Ansell, head of the county's homeless initiative. "We need to stay the course."

That said, there are some changes in the plan for the upcoming year—namely a big increase in spending on homeless shelters. Here's a roundup of the big ticket items. 

Homeless shelters 

Street homelessness—people sleeping outdoors in tents, makeshift structures, vehicles and the open air—is on the rise and it's clearly on the minds of local officials. 

"What's important to voters is addressing the tents and encampments," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. 

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti wants the city to spend $20 million on building more shelters from the city budget. The county is spending $20 million more than planned of Measure H dollars to go towards new shelter beds. All in all, the goal is about 3,250 more beds countywide. Most of these, Ansell said, will be in new places, not just adding beds to existing shelters.

That brings total Measure H spending on "interim housing" for homeless for the next fiscal year to about $120 million, an increase over the amount spent in the current fiscal year.

That scale-up happens amidst questions about how well current homeless shelters are utilized and monitored for quality. A KPCC investigation published last week found evidence of rats, bed bugs, unsanitary conditions and safety issues in some of L.A.'s shelters. Homeless people told KPCC that in some cases, they'd rather sleep on the streets than in shelters.

Ridley-Thomas said the board is directing county health agencies to prioritize homeless shelters for inspections. 

"So you'll see strike teams rolling out to make sure they're in compliance with basic building and safety standards," he said.

Ansell said the county is also looking to beef up its current system for monitoring shelters.

"We're looking at those mechanisms and determining whether there are any opportunities to strengthen our monitoring and enforcement of contractual provisions," he said. "There's no tension between the ongoing need to ensure quality and increasing our supply."

The county provided data Tuesday that showed Measure H funds were responsible for housing about 10,330 people in emergency and bridge housing (a type of shelter with more amenities and services) in the effort's first nine months.

"I'm happy about the increase to outreach and shelter beds," said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. But, she said, the ultimate goal needs to be getting people permanently housed. 

Permanent housing

In its first nine months, Measure H funds helped get 5,239 individuals and families into permanent housing.

In its second year, the tax will invest about $150 million in permanent housing and services surrounding permanent housing. That includes things like short-term rental subsidies that last a couple of years and gradually drop off as the person or family takes over the full rent. It also includes more permanent rental subsidies and cash incentives for landlords to rent to people coming off the streets. 

The amount also includes $15 million for building new homes.

The city of L.A. is investing $1.2 billion in voter-approved bonds over the course of the next eight years to construct permanent housing. The county departments of mental health and health services also put funds into housing their homeless clients. 

Still, Supervisor Janice Hahn said she was "frustrated" by the lack of permanent housing available. 

Service providers across the county are struggling to move people out of shelters and tents and into permanent housing. Federal help for building affordable housing has also diminished in the past year while building costs have gone up, making it harder than ever to close the housing gap. 

"That's still an enormous challenge," Hahn said. 

The rest of it

"Prevention, prevention, prevention," said Ridley-Thomas. 

One of the key frustrations in the fight to end homelessness in the county is the constant flow of people into homelessness. The newly homeless population has continued to grow every year as housing becomes less and less affordable in the region.

"People are simply unable to pay the rent," said Ansell. Last year's homeless count included "a very high number of people who were homeless for the first time," he said. 

Some get out of homelessness on their own and others don't. 

"We can't keep up," said Hahn. 

In the next fiscal year the county will will put $17 million of Measure H money into prevention strategies, like services that help people fighting eviction. Kuehl said the county still doesn't have a handle on what exactly prevention should look like. 

In addition, about $30 million will go into outreach, namely the multidisciplinary teams of health care workers,  social workers and formerly homeless people who visit encampments and provide services and links to shelters and housing. 

Individual cities will also receive grants from the county to pursue local homeless initiatives.

And about $17 million will go to services that are aimed at helping people increase their income by applying for social security, disability, and other public benefits.