The Website That Could End Homelessness in Los Angeles

L.A. County is using a computerized system to link homeless people with the social services that best fit their needs.
November 2014
Many of L.A. County's homeless settle in the tent city of Skid Row. Flickr/ Matthew Logelin
By Scott Beyer  |  Columnist

It isn’t easy being homeless anywhere, but it seems especially tough in Los Angeles. Despite the dizzying array of services, Los Angeles County is America’s homeless capital, with more than 52,000 unsheltered individuals sleeping on its streets nightly -- many of them settling inside the dangerous downtown tent city of Skid Row.

Now, a collection of public and private groups wants to end homelessness in the region, and it wants to do it with a digital program first tested in Skid Row in 2013. The “coordinated entry system,” a one-stop website for homeless individuals, will essentially link the homeless to the county’s many social services. The L.A. Housing Authority, the Chamber of Commerce and others have put aside $213 million to pay for the new site as well as for housing vouchers.

The computerized system, which will be operated by the Home for Good program of the local United Way, is in response to disorganization within L.A. County’s social services bureaucracy. Currently, the county has a patchwork of soup kitchens, shelters and supportive housing groups, many of which compete with one another for funds and, as a result, seldom communicate. This has led, says Home for Good Director Christine Marge, to a fight for aid that rewards the “survival of the fittest.” But worse, she says, the chaos has ended up being particularly burdensome on homeless individuals with addictions or mental illnesses.

The coordinated entry system is meant to streamline those individuals’ path to help. Under the program, case managers will seek out the homeless and evaluate their mental and physical health. They’ll enter this data into the portal, which will determine where individuals should go based on their needs and the availability within those given agencies. The worst-off -- those who most often visit emergency rooms or end up in jails, for example -- will be first in line for permanent housing. Others will qualify for transitional housing that includes counseling, and still others, mainly those who are mentally fit but may be experiencing economic hardship, will receive private-market housing assistance. In other words, the system will aim to digitally define and address the wildly diverse needs within the 10-million-person county.

The system’s countywide expansion comes thanks to added support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Piggybacking off the success of the Skid Row pilot, it will follow the “housing first” model, which has been shown to successfully keep the chronically homeless out of jails, shelters and hospitals. Los Angeles County’s most entrenched street dwellers, according to the Los Angeles Times, make up one-quarter of its roughly 52,000 homeless people but consume 75 percent of its homeless financial resources. (Official homeless counts include not only people living on the streets, but also people in shelters and in uninhabitable places like cars.) By moving those individuals to permanent housing, the county hopes to end homelessness in the region by 2016.

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