iAUDIT! - When I write about LAHSA’s many failures, I usually use its own statistics and reports. Despite huge infusions of money and four decades of experience, homelessness continues to grow. Within the homeless population, chronic and unsheltered homelessness makes up an expanding proportion of the unhoused. Despite claims of making more shelter beds available than it has in years, more people than ever live on the streets. Even though LAHSA manages more than 700 contracts for services, fewer than half the homeless receive services of any kind. Every year, LAHSA’s management promises “game changing” improvements, and every year things worsen.
In its presentation on the 2023 PIT count, LAHSA said it is developing a coordinated path forward and laid out a plan of “bold action” to assume a “leadership and coordinating role” to urgently respond to the homelessness crisis, including developing a multi-department response team to move people indoors more quickly. It also promises to set measurable system-wide goals available to the public. This plan is just the latest in a series of unkept promises.
For at least five years, the County and the City, the two entities that created LAHSA, have been calling for more accountability and more transparency, to no avail. In September 2020 the County Board of Supervisors approved a motion demanding that LAHSA improve its financial reporting and operations—and that motion was in response to audit findings from 2018.
In 2019, when the PIT count revealed a 12 percent increase in homelessness from 2018, LAHSA promised it was ready to scale up its efforts with a huge infusion of Measure H money, “The $460 million Measure H budget for FY 2019-20 ($58 M increase over FY 2018-19) will help scale up these efforts, and Governor Newsom’s May budget revision adds $650 million in one-time funding”. In 22020, homelessness jumped by nearly 13 percent from 2019--and the count was done before COVID hit.
In 2021, LAHSA spelled out plans to streamline its governance and improve its operational efficiency. Its 2022 PIT count claimed homelessness increased by “only” 4.1 percent, but within a few months so many problems were discovered with the count’s methodology, the survey was virtually worthless.
In 2022, City Controller Ron Galperin called for substantive action after LAHSA employees were caught on camera dumping food meant for the homeless, saying "Major reform is necessary not just to deal with food but to deal with all of the failures that we've seen from LAHSA."
Despite a history of failure, LAHSA tries to peddle an image of a successful, dynamic organization prepared to meet the challenges of a worsening crisis. On November 14, 2023, LAHSA’s Director of Government Affairs, Sally Malone, made a presentation to the Malibu-Los Virgenes Council of Governments, (COG). The COG is a joint powers authority of northwestern L.A. County city governments intended to provide regional coordination to address common problems like homelessness. Ms. Malone used a 30-slide presentation to highlight some of LAHSA’s program priorities and future plans. The presentation, which starts at about 30 minutes into the meeting, stated LAHSA is responsible for administering the County’s Continuum of Care, which is supposed to provide consistent shelter, housing, and services to the unhoused. The agency manages more than 700 contracts to fund outreach and services through its network of nonprofit agencies. In addition, the presentation claims its stresses accountability and transparency.
During the Q&A following the presentation, things unraveled. Terry Dipple, the COG’s Executive Director sent LAHSA a set of questions more than two months before the meeting, (I helped draft some of the questions), but Ms. Malone was not prepared to respond to them. When Mr. Dipple said he was disappointed LAHSA couldn’t answer some simple questions about measuring performance, Ms. Malone offered no excuse except to say she was sorry he was disappointed. When I worked for a city, if I gave a snarly response like that to a governing board, I’d find myself in front of the City Manager explaining why I was unprepared, and would no doubt be required to provide a formal response—and an apology--as quickly as possible.
Ms. Malone proceeded to state LAHSA is once again making huge changes. In what should come as no surprise, she admitted LAHSA has been primarily a pass-through agency that writes checks to other agencies and has never had nor imposed performance measures on its contractors. However, she promised they are implementing strong measures. She said the new Executive Director, Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, is committed to reporting on the agency’s performance. The agency has hired managers experienced in creating performance measures and tracking productivity. She stressed the emphasis should be on “looking forward” instead looking at LAHSA’s past performance (or lack thereof).
That statement is deeply troubling more for what it doesn’t say than what it says. LAHSA’s presentation claims it administers the Continuum of Care, yet it has never implemented meaningful performance measures. It has a budget of $800 million and doles out millions in checks to large corporate nonprofits, but it does not hold them responsible for what they do with the money. No other County or City department has demanded even minimum performance standards from LAHSA-funded programs. And we should remember, before leading LAHSA, Dr. Adams Kellum was CEO of St. Joseph Center, a huge nonprofit that’s benefitted from the agency’s profligate check-writing practices. Despite Ms. Malone’s soothing words and fervent attempts to deflect the conversation from LAHSA’s miserable record, we must wonder what real effect Adams Kellum can have on an organization that has no concept of performance measurement. We also need to ask why an agency responsible for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars hasn’t adopted meaningful performance measures in the past.
Poorly performing organizations like LAHSA have systemic problems that cannot be corrected by a single person in a few months or even years. I compare the problems in LAHSA to an organizational infection that persists despite changes in management or processes. The lack of accountability has so ingrained itself into the system’s culture, any reform attempt is seen as an attack. A good example of organizational infection can be seen in the comments from a 2020 California State Auditor report on the County’s use of state Mental Health Services Act money for homeless services. The Auditor found substantial evidence of a lack of performance in MHSA-funded programs. When given the opportunity to respond, County staff instead defended its non-performance, “Los Angeles’s response indicates that it will only adopt our [the State Auditor’s] recommendation to the extent that resources become available and the Legislature acts on our associated recommendations”. In other words, the County said it would not adopt reforms until it was forced to.
Like the Malibu-Los Virgenes COG, LAHSA is a joint powers authority, created by the City of L.A. and the County to address homelessness. Neither the City nor the County have shown any desire to hold LAHSA accountable and demand meaningful performance metrics. Rather, they consistently defend LAHSA’s program. If they were really interested in reform, they would not have hired a former CEO from a nonprofit that benefits from the status quo. Dr. Adams Kellum has, in turn, hired proponents of Housing First into key leadership positions. Although it makes a good political show, when political leaders like Mayor Bass and Supervisor Horvath appoint themselves to LAHSA’s governing board, it means little in terms of organizational change. If anything, they merely enable the continual flow of unaccountable funds to failing programs. This is not an environment that encourages reform.
Regardless of what other agencies may demand, LAHSA’s managers, as public servants, have an affirmative duty to use taxpayer money as efficiently as possible. U.S. GAO audit standards state “The concept of accountability for use of public resources and government authority is key to our nation’s governing processes. Management and officials entrusted with public resources are responsible for carrying out public functions and providing service to the public effectively, efficiently, economically, ethically, and equitably within the context of the statutory boundaries of the specific government program”. And: “As reflected in applicable laws, regulations, agreements, and standards, management and officials of government programs are responsible for providing reliable, useful, and timely information for transparency and accountability of these programs and their operations. Legislators, oversight bodies, those charged with governance, and the public need to know whether (1) management and officials manage government resources and use their authority properly and in compliance with laws and regulations; (2) government programs are achieving their objectives and desired outcomes; and (3) government services are provided effectively, efficiently, economically, ethically, and equitably.” In short, LAHSA’s leaders should have adopted performance measures from the moment the agency was created. Instead, they have chosen to define their roles as simple processors, with no responsibility for what results it achieves by doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to a galaxy of contracting agencies.
The only way an organization with structural problems changes is by having it imposed upon them. As a joint powers authority, LAHSA’s leaders are not directly elected by voters. Rather, they are appointed by the City Council and Board of Supervisors, who usually select members who share their enthusiasm for Housing First. Therefore, the governments in a position to force change upon LAHSA, the City and County, are complicit in its continued lack of performance. Perhaps it must fall upon voters to support candidates who are willing to uphold their duty to use public resources to their best and highest use. Until they do, we can expect continued failure, and continued suffering on the streets of Los Angeles.
(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.)