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Los Angeles Approves Anti-Homelessness Plan But Funding Uncertain

In a fresh bid to confront a problem that has confounded lawmakers for decades, Los Angeles city and county officials approved sweeping plans Tuesday aimed at getting thousands of homeless people off the streets.

By Abby Sewell

In a fresh bid to confront a problem that has confounded lawmakers for decades, Los Angeles city and county officials approved sweeping plans Tuesday aimed at getting thousands of homeless people off the streets.

But one crucial question remains unanswered: Where will most of the money come from?

"The real test for us isn't what we're approving today," Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin said. "The real test is going to be in the budget come April and May."

The county has set aside $150 million to implement its homeless strategies in the near term, but Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas acknowledged that the "question of the hour" is how future funds will be secured.

The renewed government attention to homelessness was spurred in part by a 12% surge in people living on the streets, in encampments and in vehicles from 2013 to 2015 -- pushing the total to more than 44,000 homeless people countywide.

The city and county have the most chronically homeless people in the nation, according to federal figures released last year. The problem has become increasingly visible on Los Angeles streets, triggering new calls for action.

The county plan approved Tuesday lays out a blueprint for spending the $150 million over the next two years on a variety of programs to reduce homelessness, on top of the nearly $1 billion a year county officials estimated they spend now on health and welfare services and law enforcement involving the homeless.

The city, in turn, approved a plan that would develop a host of housing programs, create a citywide system of mobile showers and public restrooms and allow overnight parking at designated sites for people who live in their vehicles, among other efforts.

Councilman Jose Huizar said it would ensure that services were provided throughout the city rather than concentrated in areas such as skid row, Hollywood or Venice, which have large homeless populations.

But the price tag is daunting: The housing efforts alone are estimated to cost more than $1.85 billion over the next decade, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said. Mayor Eric Garcetti cautioned that may be a low number, since L.A. also needs money for services.

"This is not going to be cheap to fix," said Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an independent agency formed by the city and county that coordinates funding for homeless programs. "But the plans lay out the road map to get us there."

Such spending would be a hefty jump for the city. L.A. is devoting roughly $30 million this budget year to homelessness programs, though Santana has estimated that the total city cost of coping with the problem -- including policing -- exceeds $100 million annually.

City leaders say they are examining a wide range of options, including imposing new fees on developers, and are exploring whether to turn to voters to boost funding through a tax increase or bond measure. But the City Council has yet to decide what kind of measure it might pursue. To float a November ballot measure, the council would need to act by the end of June.

The city has had plans to tackle homelessness before, "but it's when the topic turns to money that the conversation has always stopped," said Gary Blasi, professor of law emeritus at UCLA.

That troubled some homeless advocates. "We've been in this place a number of times," said Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. "And usually that's the bottleneck.... We get another report that says, 'We don't have the money.'"

Council President Herb Wesson and other city lawmakers announced in September that they would devote as much as $100 million to battle homelessness, but the city has yet to reach that mark. Garcetti told reporters Tuesday that he would propose ways to reach the $100-million figure in his next city budget, but cautioned that "it will require difficult decisions."

The county plan includes spending $26 million to expand rapid rehousing programs that give temporary assistance to help homeless residents get back into housing.

It designates $11 million for short-term housing, such as shelters and group homes for people coming out of county jails, hospitals and other institutions. It also provides $8.7 million to give subsidies to disabled homeless people who have applied for federal Supplemental Security Income, so they can get into housing in the meantime.

The plan also sets aside a significant portion of federal housing vouchers administered by the county to provide housing to chronically homeless people.

But long-term housing solutions -- including expanding the supply of permanent supportive housing that comes with mental health and substance abuse treatment and other services -- will be more costly.

An analysis by the Homeless Services Authority found that more than 15,000 additional units of that type are needed countywide. The report estimated that leasing and setting up services for that housing would cost more than $800 million over the next five years, with annual costs of $267 million after that.

The supervisors are hoping to use more funds available through the Affordable Care Act to help homeless people. Some have also expressed hope that the county could benefit from a proposed $2-billion state bond issue to pay for housing for people who are mentally ill and homeless.

The county estimates it already spends $965 million a year to provide services to homeless residents -- or to jail them. About 60% of that goes into health and mental health treatment, including stays in county emergency rooms and psychiatric facilities, with 30.5% going to welfare benefits including food stamps and cash payments, and 9.5% to law enforcement, including jails and probation.

Phil Ansell, who headed the planning process on the new county homeless initiative, said getting the people who use the most services into housing would probably decrease county costs in the long run.

"A real bed is much less expensive than a jail bed or a hospital bed," Ansell said.

Officials said the level of political will and coordination between different agencies will help this plan succeed where others faltered.

"This is not self-congratulation," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. "This is a promise."

(c)2016 the Los Angeles Times

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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