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Moving Toward ‘Functional Zero’ - Why I’m Optimistic about the LA County Homeless Initiative

GUEST WORDS-Just after the first of the year, the County released its draft set of homeless initiatives and, next week, the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve and adopt the recommendations.  

The County Homeless Initiative, a comprehensive plan comprised of 47 recommendations, represents the largest, most coordinated effort ever undertaken in LA to attack the root causes of homelessness and move thousands of individuals and families from the streets to dignity and stability. The County has the funding in this year’s budget to begin to move all 47 strategies forward. Twelve elements of the plan, those believed to have the most immediate and achievable impact, are slated to be implemented before June 30 of this year. 

Of course there will always be some doubters. Lately, I have read news accounts opining that this latest initiative is no more likely to succeed than previous plans. I say, "Not true, for several reasons."

First of all, we have made a new level of financial commitment ($150 million in funds), we have a strong political will, and we are seeing unprecedented cooperation between the County, the City of LA, other cities in the County, and service providers. It is a cross-cutting and innovative approach to homelessness. 

The strategies in the plan are built around four critical areas:

  • prevention and frontline intervention so that people don’t become homeless in the first place
  • outreach and housing navigation so that, once homeless, people are not forced to go from office to office to receive the services and support they need
  • housing and services for those who need on-going support, and
  • expanded employment and income opportunities. 

There are many significant and distinctive elements to the County plan. First, the plan considers realistic ways to reduce the pipelines into homelessness. Many men and women who become homeless have engaged LA County social services before they ever lost their homes. They may be coming out of jail, foster care, or hospitals; others may be the victims of domestic violence. In this plan, we have focused on how we discharge individuals from those systems so that they can be stabilized before they become homeless. 

Second, although the most visible percentage of our homeless population are those on the streets who are often mentally ill, they represent only about 20 percent of our total homeless population. In actuality, most homeless people can be quickly re-housed. The County initiative emphasizes rapid re-housing, a policy innovation with a proven track record in curtailing homelessness. Many people slip into homelessness as a result of an employment or medical crisis, but, if they can be rapidly re-housed, their lives can be stabilized and they can begin to meet monthly rent payments again. Importantly, the County will partner with local cities to implement this strategy in the hope that we can end people's homelessness in the same communities where they first fall out of their homes. 

The County initiative also aims to reduce the many barriers that stand between homeless individuals and families and the services that could help them. This is why those developing the Initiative engaged virtually every County department in the design. I hear people refer to the so-called “service resistant” homeless population, but so many barriers stand between people experiencing homelessness and the help they need, that to call people “service resistant” simply isn’t fair. People experiencing homelessness often don’t feel safe in shelters. Homeless men and women cannot bring their animals to a shelter. Shelters don’t provide places to store people’s belongings so people are at risk of losing the few things they own. And people experiencing homelessness may be reluctant to take the time to stand in line for services that could help them if it means sacrificing a day’s income on the streets. 

The solution to homelessness is not more shelter beds, it's housing and a variety of services. Homelessness is a complex problem, and solving it will require a complex solution. That’s why every one of the 47 strategies outlined in the County plan is important. Our goal is “functional zero” homelessness. This year we will attempt to meet that “functional zero” goal for veterans, that is, we will work to have sufficient permanent and temporary housing so that as veterans become homeless they can be housed right away. The goal of the County’s historic initiative is to bring that to every Angeleno.  

Ten years ago, LA embarked on an effort to end homelessness, but, this year, the circumstances surrounding the new initiative are substantially different than a decade ago. This time, we have the engagement and support of lead nonprofits, philanthropy, business, the city and an unprecedented commitment and will in the County. There is consensus and alignment across these important sectors and that is why I am optimistic about the success of this far-reaching initiative in solving one of the most challenging moral issues facing Los Angeles.  

(Sheila Kuehl is LA County Supervisor for the 3rd District. The Supervisor is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)