Los Angeles to serve as crucible for reform in ending chronic homelessness

California lawmakers introduced a $2 billion plan to find homes for its estimated 114,000 homeless residents. In Los Angeles, where the mayor declared a homeless emergency, the problem is particularly acute.

Richard Vogel/AP/File
Homeless people shelter from the rain under camping tents in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 22, 2015. On Monday, California lawmakers proposed a $2 billion plan to find homes for the state's 114,000 homeless residents.

As the heavy winter rains sweep across southern California, Los Angeles’s homeless residents hunker down. Many – like former farmworker Andreas, who huddled in the doorway of a parking structure – are unable or unwilling to find shelter off the street.

These are the chronically homeless, a large portion of the 44,000 people in L.A. that make this city the West Coast’s homelessness capital.

Nationwide, the chronically homeless represent roughly 20 percent of the nation’s homeless population at any given moment. And, both in California and across the country, they form the core target of an intensified effort by activists and politicians determined to get at the roots of intransigent homelessness.

Los Angeles's homeless population increased 12 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to a survey last fall. Complicating matters further is the fact that L.A. is home to the largest unsheltered homeless population in the country, without nearly enough spaces to house everyone. But perhaps partly because the problem here is particularly acute, Los Angeles can serve as a crucible for reform, advocates for the homeless and county officials say.

“What’s going on in Los Angeles is really the hub of the best practice work in the country,” says Anne Miskey, the newly appointed CEO of the Downtown Women’s Center, the only facility in the area to exclusively serve women. She stands in front of a county supervisor’s office where she has come to receive a donated van.

At all levels of government, lawmakers have stepped up funding for what has been characterized as a growing emergency.

  • Nationally, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has made the chronically homeless a primary target for municipalities receiving federal funds for the past two years.
  • California lawmakers on Monday introduced a $2 billion plan to find homes for its estimated 114,000 homeless residents. It would include a bond to build more than 10,000 permanent homes and $200 million for rent subsidies.
  • In September, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a homeless emergency, and the city council allocated an additional $100 million for new services.

“We are really serious about this issue,” says county supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, handing off the van keys to Ms. Miskey. Take the county's budget bump for homeless services, which swelled from $15 million to over $100 million this fiscal year, he points out.

Along with funding and outreach, coordinated entry is the most important element toward helping the chronically homeless, says Miskey. That way, individuals aren’t faced with a dizzying array of separate services and requirements all from different directions.  

This push, somewhat ironically, comes at the same time Los Angeles is fighting a reputation for too much reliance on law enforcement strategies, particularly in the downtown hub, which is in the midst of rapid gentrification. Some 80 percent of the city’s normal budget for tackling homelessness is spent on policing rather than providing services.

As the second-largest city in the nation, Los Angeles faces a daunting problem of scale, points out Paul Anderson-Winchell, the executive director of Lifting Up Westchester, a social services nonprofit that serves New York’s Westchester County, with a population of some 949,000.

His organization has targeted the roughly 100 chronically homeless in the county, he says.

“Our caseworkers know them all well, on a person to person basis,” he says, pointing out a critical key to housing those who have resisted accepting housing or shelter in the past.

With the new HUD emphasis on tackling the chronic population, Mr. Anderson-Winchell says social workers are now focused on bringing these individuals into housing. During the first month of the year, the group is nearly halfway to its goal of 99 beds filled for 2016. “I just don’t see L.A. having those kind of resources,” he adds.

The numbers in Los Angeles are a challenge, agrees Miskey, who says she moved to Los Angeles from Boston because she sees the city’s potential for leadership. For example, an estimated 5,000 women are classified as long-term homeless in the city. The center currently houses 119 women – and is at full capacity.

Teresa Percell and Francine Andrade are long-term residents of the facility. Both lost jobs, family, and housing to drug addiction. Ms. Percell says she was on the street for 10 years before finding a permanent berth at the center.

Both women are quick to describe how well-appointed their home is. “We have a beautiful kitchen, nice bedroom, and I do activities in the day center every day,” says Percell.

She says she has seen a difference in police attitudes just in the past year around the facility. “I’ve seen them letting people stay where they are until the morning,” she says, adding that  the real problem is the sheer numbers of people needing help. “We just need more services, more mental health services, and housing,” she says.

Ms. Andrade says she is back in touch with her family now, although her daughter is now homeless. “I tried to help her, but….” her voice trails off.

The US is not going to conquer chronic homelessness until it addresses the structural issues that hand homelessness down from one generation to another, says Brooklyn law professor David Reiss, who specializes in housing issues.

The absence of a safety net for those who fall out of employment is the beginning of the cycle, particularly for at-risk populations such as foster-care children who age out of the system and single mothers with young children. Job scarcity is also a factor. Big cities with the highest cost of living, like Los Angeles and New York, usually present the most possibilities for those in search of work.

“Very low-income people often prefer to stay in such cities, even if they are at risk of homelessness, because it is the best of a set of bad options,” he points out.

The basic costs of maintaining a home are driving more people onto the street, says Professor Reiss – a growing problem tied to the issue of income inequality.

A recent study by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies finds that this trend is increasing and, says Reiss, “we should expect more and more households to have trouble paying rent in the coming years.”

The scope of L.A.’s problem is both a challenge and a promise, says Miskey. The key is a question of perception.

Take, for example, the population she is serving in her new position. “Women’s issues have so often been lumped in with the larger homeless population,” she says.

“It’s vital to see each individual as a person,” Miskey says, “not an invisible number.”

Correction: The Downtown Women's Center in Los Angeles houses 119 women.

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