A panel of government officials from across Los Angeles and California spoke Friday about their approaches to solving homelessness, though they admitted there may be no perfect solution.
The officials spoke at one of the morning sessions of the 2019 Mayoral Housing, Transportation and Jobs Summit, titled “Collaborative Solutions to Homelessness,” which is being hosted by the Los Angeles Business Council at UCLA.
It was moderated by Brad Cox, the chair of the LABC Institute, and included Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger; Sarah Dusseault, the chair of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Board of Commissioners; Robert Jernigan, the co-regional managing principal of Gensler Southwest Region; Chris Ko, the director of homeless initiatives at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles; Ann Sewill, the vice president of health and housing for the California Community Foundation; and Doug Shoemaker, the president of Mercy Housing California.
Shoemaker said the presenting solutions to homelessness can be daunting due to public perception.
“The only thing people hate more than homelessness are the solutions to it,” said Shoemaker, who heads one of the largest supportive housing nonprofit organizations in the state. “We’re not going to solve this problem with … (what) the public will support over time if we don’t toss out some of the things that are sacred to us.”
Shoemaker said projects for housing need to be increased and scaled to the actual size of the county’s homeless population, which would mean placing them in areas that might not be popular with locals.
The city of Los Angeles is in the process of building 10,000 units for permanent supportive housing, but it and the county have tens of thousands more people who need to be housed, with more people becoming homeless each day, according to city and county data. The panel said Los Angeles needs to prioritize permanent supportive housing, as well as temporary shelters.
Ko said that each community has a unique and cultural approach to homelessness, and he noted the complexities that came with Koreatown in the last few years, when advocates for homeless people and those opposed to shelters in their neighborhood clashed.
“When we talk about building something, everyone is mentally thinking about Skid Row,” Ko said of the infamous sector of downtown Los Angeles that has a large concentration of the city’s homeless population. “It represents what every community is thinking, that we are bringing Skid Row to you. When you’re talking 1,500 to 2,000 shelter beds in one block, that’s 20 times of the scale of what we’re proposing.”
Ko said officials need to distinguish clearly what they want to build and take care in how they deliver that message to communities in order to come to a better understanding.
Barger said that she is supportive of housing people immediately, even if they may not have completely recovered from their addictions and are going through mental health services, but she said there does have to be some kind of order.
“There are rules once they come in, and they have to abide by those rules, and I think you have to have structure,” Barger said.
She mentioned the single-room occupancy units that used to be prevalent around Skid Row, small units with basic utilities and a common area for the complex, and she said they were “very popular.”
“Those models, for a lot of the individuals that are service-resistant and have been on the street a long time, are the type of models you want in place because you want a sense of community,” Barger said, adding its difficult to get homeless people who have been on the streets for long periods of time to conform to the housing rules.
“You need to, for lack of a better word, retrain them in terms of structure and dos and don’ts,” she said. “But if you say, `You have to be clean, you have to be sober, you have to take mental health services,’ they’re going to decline housing.”
Sewill defended the use of the city’s $1.2 billion in Proposition HHH funds to help build thousands of permanent supportive units through loans, saying that the same cost to give homeless people motel vouchers would run out after 13 years, whereas affordable housing allows for decades of affordable units to exist.
“We’ve just made (affordable housing development) so much more difficult with all the anti-growth, NIMBY,” Sewill said, the acronym meaning, “not in my back yard.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and other officials are expected to speak at 1 p.m. at the summit’s “Statewide Solutions for Housing and Homelessness” session. The summit is being live-streamed at www.labusinesscouncil.org.