iAUDIT - If there is a common theme to most of my columns, it’s that I seem to regularly bash LAHSA, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. You may wonder why. Yes, it’s done a horrid job of using its vast financial resources to put even a slight dent in homelessness, but it’s hardly reached that dubious achievement alone. The City of Los Angeles and various departments of the County seem to be equally inept. Together, they form a troika of poorly run agencies who exert tremendous amounts of energy with nothing to show for it, besides more people than ever on the streets. So why do I pick on LAHSA so much?
Because the only reason LAHSA exists is to alleviate homelessness. It is a joint powers authority (JPA). Local governments create JPA’s to handle specific issues that cross regional boundaries, for everything from insurance services to public safety. LAHSA was created by and receives funding from the City of Los Angeles and L.A. County, for the sole purpose of leading and coordinating regional homelessness intervention programs. On its website, LAHSA says its mission is “To drive the collaborative strategic vision to create solutions for the crisis of homelessness grounded in compassion, equity, and inclusion." Nothing about practicality or effectiveness, of course.
Since LAHSA’s creation in 1993, homelessness has steadily increased. LAHSA claims it is a driver of strategies to create solutions for homelessness, but it has no authority over the City nor the County. Its serves primarily as a funding mechanism for a vast array of nonprofit agencies that should be providing shelter and services to the unhoused population. In 2018, the L.A. County Auditor noted several deficiencies in LAHSA’s contract practices, including paying on expired contracts and renewing others without Board approval. Even now, many service contracts are “sole source”, meaning they are not competitively bid. Nobody really knows how well any of those organizations do their jobs because LAHSA provides almost no objective data on its contractors’ performance or outcomes.
LAHSA lists five core values on its website:
- ACCOUNTABILITY: We take responsibility for our actions and decisions.
We commit to evaluating results, continuous improvement, and transparency for the system.
- COLLABORATION: We are stronger together. Our success is driven by our ability to build relationships, break down silos, and connect across teams, functions, populations, and geographies.
- COMPASSION: We believe all persons deserve housing, services, and safety. We meet people where they are without preconditions or judgement.
- EQUITY: We are committed to racial, social, and economic justice. We appreciate culture, experience, and values of all people. We work to eliminate disparities within our system.
- INTEGRITY: We do the right thing. We hold ourselves to a higher standard by demonstrating honesty, dignity, and respect in all we do.
Let’s consider each of these values in terms of LAHSA’s actual operations and outcomes.
- Accountability: If the consequences of LAHSA’s lack of accountability weren’t so tragic, this claim would be laughable. Despite multiple failures in almost every dimension of its operations, no one in a leadership position, from the Board of Directors to its CEO, or anyone else, has taken responsibility. There’s always someone else to blame when the number of unsheltered and chronically homeless people increase each year, it’s a lack of affordable housing. When not enough housing has been built, its “red tape” or community resistance. On the rare occasions when it has been called to account for its performance, LAHSA has consistently shown an inability to provide reliable statistics. The revelation that it doesn’t know how many people are actually occupying Inside Safe rooms under its management is just the most recent example. Although it has reported more than 20,000 people placed in permanent housing for each of the last three years, LAHSA has no idea how many of them are the same people moving in and out of different facilities. In its presentation on the 2023 PIT count, LAHSA has promised to establish more robust statistical analysis, begging the question of what it has been doing for the past 30 years.
When it comes to accountability, the City and County share culpability with LAHSA. They provide funding to the Authority and depend on it and its service providers for outreach, shelter, and support services. Yet, despite a lot of talk about holding it more accountable, little has changed. In spite of calls for reforms and even threats to withhold funding, the Coty and County to throw money at LAHSA and its failed programs.
- Collaboration: LAHSA is supposed to manage the county’s “continuum of care”, meaning it is responsible for providing or coordinating the services required to get people off the streets and into the proper support programs. It’s no secret it has failed its responsibility, with a fraction of people needing service receiving them, a situation Lyndsey Horvath, a member of the Board of Supervisors and LAHSA’s new Chairperson, called an “embarrassment.” The City Council had to drag the admission the Authority doesn’t know how many people are in Inside Safe shelters out of its staff, hardly a picture of “collaboration.”
- Compassion: Given its obsession with permanent housing over any other remedy, LAHSA’s “compassion” has resulted in increasing numbers of unsheltered and chronically homeless people on the streets. There is nothing compassionate about leaving at least 55,000 unsheltered people to fend for themselves each night--a number far higher than New York City.
- Equity: It is well-known homelessness affects people of color disproportionately. Women, many of them victims of domestic violence, also suffer from being unhoused. Yet, by shirking its sole responsibility to provide services and shelter to the homeless, LAHSA leaves people of all ethnicities and genders to languish on the streets, where they are subject to personal and property crimes at rates astronomically higher than the housed population, and where women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault.
- Integrity: Blaming everyone but oneself for one’s failures is not a sign of integrity. LAHSA says it values honesty, but last year it published a PIT count it knew was seriously flawed. It regularly counts tens of thousands of people as “housed” when in fact it doesn’t know how many are repetitive clients, and the number of homeless continues to climb. The Authority’s leadership is best exemplified when its CEO referred to the 2023 count’s jump in homelessness as “disappointing but not unexpected.” Not a hint of taking responsibility, nor introspection, just shifting blame to unquantifiable external factors and a return to business as usual.
LAHSA is supposed to be the “tip of the spear” for regional homelessness response. The City and County governments, which have performance issues of their own, depend on LAHSA and its 100-plus contracted agencies to provide outreach, support, shelter, and housing to more than 75,000 homeless people. Unlike the City and County, it has no other mission. It does not provide law enforcement; it does not sweep the streets or trim trees. Its reason for existence is to do one thing—provide homeless services, and it does not do that job well. So, if it seems I constantly come back to its dismal performance, don’t forget why: 75,000 unhoused people, 55,000 of whom are unsheltered, and six of whom die each night.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, an English officer vents his frustration with his commander’s lack of progress in a battle, “The town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach, and we talk and, by Christ, do nothing, ’tis shame for us all.” Shakespeare could write the same about LAHSA’s leadership and those who are supposed to hold them accountable.
(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program. He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.)