Eureka

Why Los Angeles’ Homelessness Approach Is Working—With The Right Ingredients

by Colleen Murphy
Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Image credit: 
istock

Homelessness is on the rise across California. From Kern County to Alameda County, the housing crisis and economic disparities are pushing more and more people into homelessness.

And Los Angeles County is no exception.

Our 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count found almost 60,000 county residents are experiencing homelessness on any given night—a 12 percent rise over 2018. Of those, 44,000 are unsheltered, living on the streets or in tents, makeshift shelters, or vehicles.

I work at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), a joint powers authority of the city and county of LA that coordinates and manages over $400 million in federal, state, city, and county funds for programs and organizations that combat homelessness.

My job is coordinating and working with street-based outreach teams across LA County, making sure they have everything they need to succeed. Outreach teams are the backbone of our homeless services system. They go to riverbeds, on the sides of roads, under bridges, and behind alleys to connect people experiencing unsheltered homelessness to services.

In my seven years working in this field, I’ve learned that no one wants to be homeless. Trauma is a tricky thing and can impact decision making and self-worth. It can convince you that a horrible situation is tenable, especially because you might not have (or see) other options. Combine this with structural racism, eroding safety nets, an ever-widening gap between incomes and costs of living, and you have a perfect storm for homelessness.

Despite this, I’ve seen so many people—including those whom society calls “service resistant”—move indoors and stay indoors. The first few times I witnessed it, I too scratched my head and thought, “How is this possible?” And that’s because I realized I had the same implicit bias that much of our society harbors—that people experiencing homelessness are too broken to thrive.

After examining a few of these successes, I realized there were commonalities. In fact, there was a pretty standard recipe:

  1. Build trust.
  2. Follow through.
  3. Value a person’s strengths, potential, hopes, and dreams.
  4. Identify things that get in the way of no. 3 and provide support for each individual to address these roadblocks.
  5. Be creative and resourceful.
  6. Have permanent housing and associated supports that meet the person’s needs.
  7. Move that person into said housing and continue to provide support.
  8. Believe in the power of time, support, and healing. 

This recipe has helped LA’s homeless services system end homelessness for more people than ever before. We’ve been able to produce results that have increased services, permanent housing, and connections between people experiencing homelessness and our system:

  • Outreach, services, and housing: Two years into a ten-year effort resulting from Measure H—a voter-approved 0.25 percent increase to the county’s sales tax to provide an estimated $355 million per year for ten years to fund homeless services—LA’s homeless services system housed 21,631 people last year. We worked with 75,843 people over the course of the year, 80 percent of whom were new to our system. We prevented homelessness for 5,643 people—triple the number as before Measure H. Outreach workers engaged 34,110 people—again, triple the number as before Measure H.
  • Permanent supportive housing construction: As a result of 2016’s Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to facilitate the development of affordable permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness in the city of LA, there are more than 8,000 units of permanent housing in the pipeline for our homeless neighbors. Most of these will be permanent supportive housing and will include on-site services such as mental health counseling, substance use treatment, and job training.
  • Capabilities to scale, move upstream, and build connections: We’ve hired hundreds of street-based outreach workers, putting multidisciplinary teams on the street, and set up LA-HOP.org so members of the public can connect homeless LA County residents to trained outreach workers. We’ve improved care coordination and connections to the foster system, hospitals, and jails to prevent homelessness and to connect people to services and housing. “Safe parking” sites and mobile showers support people experiencing homelessness with security and dignity.

Even with the success our system has seen, it’s still not enough. According to the 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, 25 percent of those who are unsheltered have been homeless for less than a year. This staggering inflow is due to rising rents combined with stagnating incomes, a dearth of affordable housing, societal inequalities, and community vitriol that prevents the construction of housing and homeless services in neighborhoods across the county.

We’ve argued over where people experiencing homelessness come from. We’ve argued over the methodology of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count and statistics because it’s easier to fix a statistical multiplier than it is to address structural inequalities. We’ve argued that housing for people experiencing homelessness is noble but shouldn’t be in my neighborhood. We’ve argued that we’ve tried the services route so perhaps it’s time to try the enforcement route, because Angelenos aren’t aware of the role of inflow and instead look for a quick fix.

In this space of escalating anger, I feel I an obligation to share what I’ve learned over the years: our system works, and it needs all its components and more to end this crisis.

If I were baking a cake and didn’t have enough flour, I wouldn’t blame the recipe—I’d get more flour. Yes, I may look for shortcuts and ways to stretch the flour a bit more. I could look for strategies to mix and bake the cake more quickly. But ultimately, without the eggs, flour, sugar, leavening agent, and oven, you cannot make a cake. Remove one component and you won’t succeed. 

Over the past few years, thanks to Measure H and other initiatives, we’ve been able to bake some pretty big and interesting cakes.

Let’s recommit to investing in the recipe for success.

Colleen Murphy is the manager of CES Access at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Since 2017, she has been the co-lead on the County of Los Angeles’s strategy to build and foster a more coordinated outreach system for the 45,000 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in that region of Southern California.