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When will LA’s big homelessness strategy start paying off?

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Some advocates are growing impatient

Homelessness in LA County rose 23 percent last year.
David McNew, Getty Images

In March of last year, Los Angeles County voters approved Measure H, a big plan to address soaring rates of homelessness. The vote came four months after residents in the city of Los Angeles signed off on Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion initiative to build 10,000 units of housing for homeless residents over the next decade.

Local officials pitched the bills as an ambitious effort to house the nearly 60,000 residents living in shelters and on sidewalks countywide. But a year since the passage of both measures, some homeless advocates are growing impatient for results.

“This is a crisis,” says Mel Tillekeratne, who founded the Monday Night Mission and Shower of Hope. In Los Angeles County, he says, “we've never had a crisis response. Some cities are literally doing nothing.”

Working with other longtime advocates, Tillekeratne started the #SheDoes movement earlier this year. The social media campaign is designed to raise awareness of the plight of homeless women, who are often victims of domestic violence and experience high rates of sexual assault living without a permanent address.

The movement’s supporters are critical of what they see as a lackluster response on the part of elected officials to address the issue.

“We should have an entire [city] department dealing with homelessness,” says Tillekeratne.

He says the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which administers funding to local service providers and is tasked with overseeing much of Measure H’s rollout, is “not set up to be able to properly respond to the crisis.”

Fueling some of those doubts is a report released this month from the county Auditor-Controller that found LAHSA is short on staff and late on payments.

According to the report, at the time of the Measure H rollout, the agency was behind on more than 70 percent of its payments, which provide crucial financing to the many independent organizations working to combat homelessness across the county.

Earlier this week, the county Board of Supervisors ordered a report on how the agency was addressing these issues, and what longterm strategies could be implemented to ensure money brought in through Measure H’s quarter-cent sales tax increase gets distributed on time.

LAHSA director Peter Lynn says the agency is already in a “dramatically different position” than it was during the audit, and that new workflow systems have sped up payments to providers. He also points out that LAHSA has nearly doubled in size each of the past two years.

“If you think about the scale of the growth and how fast we’ve been rolling things out, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of adapting to the challenges,” Lynn says.

Tommy Newman, director of public affairs at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, says, in spite of any early hiccups, Measure H is on track to produce positive results.

“It’s off to a really strong start,” he says.

The United Way is leading the Everyone In campaign to raise public awareness around homeless issues and encourage Angelenos to participate in the rollout of Measures H and HHH.

Newman points to a City Council resolution to build at least 222 units of supportive housing geared toward homeless residents as one early success (residents can track the progress of this goal on the Everyone In website).

With new rules aimed at accelerating the construction of affordable housing passed Wednesday by the City Council, many of those residences could arrive ahead of schedule.

But #SheDoes supporters and others question what happens to residents while they wait for these new homes to be constructed.

“The longer people are on the streets, the harder it is to get them into housing,” says Dorit Dowler-Guerrero, a longtime case manager and founding member of the SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition.

The group, which includes residents of Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village, and Hollywood, is advocating for more services in the area to address the short-term needs of homeless residents, like hygiene, healthcare, and temporary shelter.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing people living in feces,” Dowler-Guerrero says. “It’s... crazy.”

Projects like a planned shelter near the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument represent an effort on the part of city leaders to provide more immediate solutions, but Tillekeratne says he worries that facilities like this will be few and far between.

“El Pueblo by itself is not enough,” he says. “We need [a new] El Pueblo every single month of the year.”

Newman says more temporary housing is needed, but he cautions against changing course from the city and county’s homelessness strategy, which prioritizes placing residents in longterm housing.

Focusing only on shelter space “diverts resources from permanent solutions,” says Newman. “That being said, we need a hell of a lot more short-term housing.”

Even elected officials have been critical of the slow rollout of some elements included in the city’s list of strategies for combatting homelessness adopted in 2016.

In a February motion, councilmembers Mike Bonin and Marqueece Harris-Dawson pointed out that those plans called for an expansion and overhaul of the city’s shelter system to start residents on the path of longterm housing.

“That has not happened,” the councilmembers wrote. “In fact, there is scant evidence of any progress, no apparent plan or strategy to make progress, and no evident sense of urgency or attention to any efforts to make progress.”

At the end of March, the full council asked LAHSA to report back in two weeks on steps being taken to provide “low-barrier, 24- hour crisis housing” to residents citywide.

Longtime homeless advocate Ted Hayes, who ran a unique Downtown LA shelter facility called Dome Village from 1993 to 2006 (when a seven-fold rent hike forced it to close), warns that local leaders will need to find solutions soon or risk alienating taxpayers who voted for initiatives like H and HHH.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t get a hold of this soon, the same people who voted for all that money to go toward fixing homelessness are going to pass a new ballot measure that calls for the forcible removal of people off the streets,” Hayes says.

In response to that concern, Newman, of the United Way, points to poll numbers showing a majority of LA residents are willing to wait on longterm solutions, even if they take longer to implement.

“Impatience is there, and it should be,” Hayes says. “In many ways, impatience has been lacking.”

To Newman, that sense of urgency among residents is what organizers of the Everyone In campaign are trying to harness. But they also want people to know there’s a plan in place.

“It’s not like no one’s doing anything,” Newman says.