As city officials continue to evaluate approaches to combating the homelessness crisis, the Los Angeles City Council Friday received an evaluation of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s governing structure in an effort to figure out how to best make the county-city coordinating agency more effective.
“When we look around our city, I don’t have to tell you this, it is clear that what we’re doing is simply not working, and we have to ask ourselves if we’re truly committed to solving this crisis with the utmost urgency,” Council President Nury Martinez said.
“For several months now, members, we’ve had conversations on housing, on outreach, on street engagement, and in each of these conversations we’ve had, you’ve brought up concerns about the role and effectiveness of LAHSA. So now we need to undertake a comprehensive review on the current system to understand the gaps that exist and what needs to change in order to better serve all of our communities, as well as the unhoused population,” she said.
John Wickham of the Chief Legislative Analyst’s office presented council members with a review of LAHSA’s structure and a comparison to other agencies.
Wickham told council members that key problems within LAHSA include:
— elected officials are not integrated into the center of the system;
— the system is complex, which is partly necessary due to the complexity of the county, its political systems and its population;
— parts of the system have authority with no accountability; and
— parts of the system are held accountable but have no authority.
“In restructuring the system, whichever path it goes down, these are some of the things that need to be addressed,” Wickham said.
He said that the public-private partnership, which is how LAHSA operates, is the only realistic model, as a public-only agency would not have adequate funding and a private-only model, which is how the city used to handle the homelessness crisis, has led to the current problem, including a massive homeless population living on Skid Row.
“Early on, we were relying on the market, everybody was relying on the market to just solve it, and that’s not going to work, and we know that that’s probably cruel,” Wickham told council members.
LAHSA’s public-private partnership includes the city, county, state and federal governments on the public side and over 300 service providers working under contracts on the private side. The private service providers include nonprofits, faith-based organizations, for-profit companies, education systems and health care providers, Wickham said.
One of the problems within the system is the “weak links,” according to Wickham. He compared the system to a soccer team, where one weak link can bring down the entire team.
“There are so many parties in the system at various levels of government that are all essential to the system. They need to be more effective and more efficient. We need to be working to identify them,” Wickham said.
Council members asked Wickham how much of the ineffectiveness of LAHSA is caused by a lack of housing supply, and Wickham stated that the problem is caused by both supply and operations.
Heidi Marston, LAHSA’s executive director, said “there’s no question that supply impacts the ability of the system to be effective because there’s nowhere for people to go.”
She said that L.A. County is 500,000 affordable housing units short of meeting the demand and, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was about 30,000 permanent supportive housing units short of meeting demand.
She added that LAHSA’s system of moving someone from homelessness into a permanent solution has become “very complicated, which is why we’re doing this work on governance and the LAHSA strategic plan.”
Wickham also told council members that LAHSA’s main function is to rehouse people, but the city and county are often adding other tasks to its list of responsibilities.
“It’s important to note that LAHSA’s role on this chart is in the rehousing box. That is their primary role. Over the past 30 years it seems that there’s been a habit to identify a program or an idea and say ‘that related to homeless people, give it to LAHSA,”’ Wickham said.
“When we look at ways to address homelessness, it’s important to look at a structure like this and say, is this really what LAHSA should be doing or is there some other entity that’s more ideally suited to provide this service.”
Councilman Joe Buscaino, who calls for ending LAHSA as part of his campaign for mayor in the 2022 election, said the issue is “the bloated bureaucracy that has failed the people living on our streets.”
“The city of L.A. pays LAHSA $300 million a year to perform this function on our behalf, yet LAHSA is unwilling to provide the city and its departments basic information about its outreach activities and outcomes,” Buscaino said. He said he wants information about who has been offered shelter but turned the offer down, saying that the information is needed for the city to enforce its anti-camping ordinance because it can’t differentiate between people who have access to shelter and those who don’t.
“It’s time to end LAHSA, establish our own continuum of care and directly contract with organizations that will conduct outreach and share critical information with the city that will allow for some common sense rules and order in our streets,” Buscaino said.
Councilman Kevin de León asked Wickham if the city could create its own continuum of care, instead of depending on LAHSA. A continuum of care is a regional planning body that coordinates housing and homeless services funding for families and individuals in need. LAHSA is the lead agency for the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, which includes all cities in L.A. County with the exception of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena. Those three cities have their own continuums of care.
Wickham said that it would need to undergo a substantial review process from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive federal funding. He added that the city of Atlanta used to be part of a regional organization and decided to create its own. The process took about three years.
De León asked for Wickham’s opinion about what the city should do: reform LAHSA or create a Los Angeles city continuum of care. Wickham declined to answer but said that the Chief Legislative Analyst has reviewed the city’s options and will present on them at a later City Council meeting.
Wickham’s presentation Friday included three chapters of a six-chapter evaluation of LAHSA. Next week, the City Council will hear a review of the three remaining chapters.
“Members, this discussion is not for the sake of listening to ourselves speak. I do expect recommendations from several of you and I hope that they can go back to our Homelessness and Poverty Committee and come forward with additional recommendations for this body to take action,” Martinez said.