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Where Is Our Homeless Czar?

DEEGAN ON LA-Los Angeles, eagerly looking forward to a summer of Olympic glory in 2028, has won the Gold Medal for failure when it comes to the competition of helping the homeless beat the streets and win housing. 

We’ve just learned that the city’s homeless population grew by 16% last year, after a 6% decrease the previous year. That's a shocking swing of twenty-two points. 

What could account for this? Who, organically and intuitively, has the answer? Who has been our leader when it comes to solving the critical homeless issue? Not one city politico has stood up and said, “right here...it is me,” and then proved that he or she is capable of getting the job done. 

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer (photo above) pitched the idea of creating a “Homeless Czar” in a Times op-ed piece on January 9, 2018. He saw a need for “mission-driven, accountable, even impatient leadership on homelessness -- leadership that is both focused and empowered to make things happen.” He pointed out that “the region’s leadership on homelessness is diffuse.” 

Isn’t it time to consider Mike Feuer’s recommendation to appoint a Homeless Czar – to have the LA County Supervisors and the LA City Council jointly name someone from the private sector with broad ombudsman authority and executive powers to address this growing problem? 

Perhaps a C-Suite executive would consider it a civic duty to roll up his or her sleeves and engage colleagues in the corporate world to help get to the bottom of the problem. Has anyone like that even been asked? In 1984, corporate CEO Peter Ueberroth became the LA Olympics Czar and with great success. Perhaps there is another CEO out there who could become LA’s Homeless Czar in 2019. 

As Feuer points out, “the city of LA has authority over land use, the county is responsible for mental health services, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — a joint endeavor between the city and county — administers grants to nonprofits.” 

On the County level, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has been a tireless advocate, both locally and in Sacramento, for the homeless. The mental health capabilities of the County continue to be effective, but only if a homeless person will accept those services. Sadly, MRT has no counterpart in City government, no one able to wrap their arms around the homeless issue and produce results, even with the big bank account now available from Props H and HHH. 

A few days ago, a coalition of housing justice and homeless advocates announced an allegation of waste by the city, in its “land use” capacity, for having spent $500,000 per unit to house the homeless, so far a total of $619 million. They called it “expensive—and clearly ineffectual,” adding that plans to house the homeless so far have been “a national disgrace.” These funds come from Prop HHH, the voter-approved $1.2 billion bond issue and Prop H, a measure that increased the sales tax. 

If this allegation, which should be audited by the City Controller and investigated for possible fraud by the District Attorney, proves to be true, the taxpayers are due an explanation and a refund. 

The third party in the triangular configuration of city (land use), county (mental health), and housing authority (administration of grants), is the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the “Cassandra” in this ongoing tragedy of the homeless crisis. Their Annual Homeless Count Report details the depressing fact of a 16% increase in homeless in the city. Both ends of the demographic spectrum are highlighted: homeless youth increased by 24%, while senior homeless increased by 8%. 

The Homeless Services Authority says the sharp increase in homeless people is keyed to “economic hardship” by way of an “affordable housing crisis,” and “wages that have not kept pace with rental costs.” It’s a county-city joint powers authority; they’re not going to highlight the lack of political leadership as a contributor to the crisis that has been exacerbated by the housing crisis. 

Some options for what could be next: 

  • City AttorneyMike Feuer and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas should jointly conduct a search of the private and corporate sectors for a Homeless Czar and present their recommended choice to both the City Council and the County Supervisors for approval. They should grant the czar a sweeping mandate, including control of Prop H (sales tax increase) and Prop HHH ($1.2 billion bond issue) funds to solve the problem. 
  • City Controller Ron Galperin should audit the work orders, invoices and payments attached to the alleged half-million dollars per unit cost of homeless housing. 
  • District Attorney Jackie Lacey should investigate if there was fraud and waste in the spending of $619 million of public funds to house the homeless. 
  • Homeless youth and homeless seniors, two of the most tender and vulnerable homeless populations, should be given priority in the administration of services, along with prioritizing the continuing triage to the mentally ill homeless. 
  • Our city politicos should admit defeat and leave the solutions to a corporate-trained Homeless Czar.

 

(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.