Tue, Jul

Homelessness in L.A.: Big Ship, No Rudder


iAUDIT! - On June 28, when LAHSA announced a nearly imperceptible reduction in homelessness at a public relations event, leaders from Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, LAHSA’s CEO, to Mayor Bass claimed it was a sign L.A. was “turning a corner”, but much work needed to be done.  The small decrease, if it exists, has come after years of promises of “bold action” from LAHSA and other agencies, yet, structurally, very little has changed. As I explained in my last column, the supposed reduction has come at a huge cost, with massive budget increases poured into the same programs we’ve seen in previous years.  So, we really need to ask ourselves what has changed, and who’s in charge? 

The answer to the first question is easy: Not much. Other than the City’s Inside Safe program, which is really just a shelter program on steroids, there has been no structural change in most homelessness programs.  LAHSA still doles out millions to providers for street outreach, achieving nowhere near the anemic 20 percent shelter/housing targets in their contracts.  Hundreds of millions are paid to the same small cadre of nonprofits like St. Joseph Center, PATH, and HOPICS; there are no new players on the field.  The majority of the performance measures one finds on the City’s homelessness programs website are merely workload statistics, and not necessarily related to getting people off the streets.  For example, on the website’s LAHSA metrics report page, the performance target for street outreach is getting 20 percent of contacted clients into interim housing.  However, the top three services provided are: 1) providing basic hygiene items; 2) providing food and drink; 3) distributing service information or brochures. None of these are performance measures—they barely qualify as workload indicators. Nor do they show how they helped get people housed. Distributing service information is not the same as a housing intake action.  In truth, there is little new to be found in homelessness programs; merely the infusion of huge sums of money to produce negligible gains. 

The answer to the second question is more vexing: who’s in charge? Who is steering this $4 billion ship and monitoring the performance of thousands of employees?  The short answer is nobody.  Its is rudderless, or at best on autopilot. Let’s look at the June 28 PIT count presentation. The top three leaders bragging about “turning the corner” were Dr. Adams Kellum, Mayor Bass, and Supervisor Horvath.  Each of these three head agencies that neither answer to, nor have authority over the others. Indeed, the relationship among the three is so cozy, it is highly unlikely any accountability will be imposed.  Mayor Bass sits on LAHSA’s Board, of which Supervisor Horvath is Chair. Dr. Adams Kellum is the former head of St. Joseph Center and was Mayor Bass’ first advisor on homelessness before taking the LAHSA job. Besides being chair of LAHSA, Horvath heads the County Board of Supervisors.  In theory, these relationships could foster mutual accountability and coordination, but in reality they do little more than cement the siloed, process-based approach that has defined homelessness programs for decades. 

Isn’t LAHSA supposed to captain the behemoth homelessness ship?  According to its mission statement, LAHSA, a joint powers authority created by the City and County, exists to “To drive the collaborative strategic vision to create solutions for the crisis of homelessness grounded in compassion, equity, and inclusion."  The verb “drive” suggests a leading role, of guiding homelessness interventions throughout the County. The reality is quite different.  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. During the Q&A session following the presentation, Ms. Malone 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.  This is hardly the agency driving a homelessness strategy that is supposed to help more than 75,000 people. 

Each agency: the City, County, and LAHSA, have mission statements regarding homelessness, as do the myriad programs under their authority. What is missing is an overarching strategic plan to coordinate all these activities. Everyone agrees homelessness needs to be reduced, but nobody seems to have a clear path to that goal. You can search the City, County and LAHSA websites and not find a unified plan to address homelessness. The vague precepts of Housing First permeate policy statements, but there are no clear short- or long-term goals associated with them.  The narrative, such as it is, seems to be: “To reduce homelessness, we need to house people. To keep people housed, we need to provide many of them support services like mental health and addiction recovery”.  Towards that end, LAHSA should handle most street outreach through its provider network; the City should provide housing; the County should provide support services, and LAHSA once again steps in the coordinate all of this activity.  

As we know, the reality is disappointingly different. LAHSA’s outreach efforts are often so scattershot, individual City Councilmembers contract with their own set of providers to deliver the same services in their districts, (hence the multi-million-dollar contracts with CIRCLE team providers like Urban Alchemy). We also know the County rarely delivers on its promise to provide consistent services to those in need. The City has fallen far behind its housing creation goals and seems to have trouble opening the housing it does have, as evidenced by leaving 1,200 Project Homekey units vacant for as much as two years. 

There are many reasons why homelessness programs have produced few positive outcomes. One is that the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that is supposed to provide client information across jurisdictions is underused and contains incomplete information.  If the City and County can’t share client information, they cannot coordinate services.  Another reason is the focus on process instead of outcomes in most performance measures.  For example, many reports on the City’s website refer to shelter or housing “placements” rather than unique individuals housed.  A placement is an action, not a person, and as the reports often mention, multiple placements may be made for the same person. 

But the overriding reason homelessness programs have failed is because no one is steering the ship.  There is no single central authority or person who can tell LAHSA, the City, and the County to work together toward a commonly shared goal.  Even within these agencies, there is no single point of control.  The County’s Homeless Initiative office is supposed to coordinate County programs, but it has no authority over the jigsaw puzzle of departments providing services.  Mayor Bass recently announced the creation of a Deputy Mayor for Homelessness and a new Homeless Department, but unless the position is given operational authority over departments, nothing will change. And that authority will be difficult to attain, since LA has a weak mayor form of government. The Mayor has little authority over operations now, so there’s no reason to think it will magically be granted to a new deputy. LAHSA, despite its lofty mission statement, has no authority over City and County operations. 

Rather than admit the current structure doesn’t work, and commit to focusing on a unified approach, leaders continue supporting a failed system.  Since 2016, the budgets and staffing of many of LA’s homelessness programs have ballooned as much as tenfold, yet the best they can claim is a two percent decrease in homelessness after six years of major increases.  That is not success; that is not “turning a corner” and “locking arms” simply isn’t enough. The only way to achieve success will be to create a unified structure with one lead agency, and to have that agency develop realistic and meaningful goals for its subordinate agencies.  Until then, we can expect more of the same.

(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.)

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