MRT on Point

It’s Time to Answer the Alarm (part one)

Originally featured in the July 5, 2023 edition of the Praxis newsletter

By Mark Ridley-Thomas Ph.D.

I cannot recall a time, other than 2015, when there has been such heightened activity about homelessness than in the past few weeks. The book ends were the excellent, but daunting UCSF report on Homelessness in California followed by the revealing, but jarring Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count (often referred to as Point-in-Time). Additionally, there has been significant commentary on the State of California’s fiscal responsibilities and approach to the homeless crisis.

Let’s begin with the most salient insights from the CA Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness. I believe it’s fair to say that this report is on a myth-busting mission. In other words, the authors seek to debunk the prevailing assumptions erroneously held about the unhoused in the Golden State. The report informs or reminds us that California constitutes 30% of the nation’s homeless population, and it further states that they are surprisingly older residents and disproportionately Black and Native American, the two smallest ethnic groups in California. These data stand in sharp contrast to the stereotype of homeless persons as mentally deranged and addicted. Instead, the report contends they are formerly the working poor, priced out of the housing market and ending up on the streets of primarily urban areas of California’s cities.

The report’s principal author, Dr. Margot Kushel makes it plain, “Something goes wrong and then everything else falls apart…Everything in their life gets worse when they lose their housing: their health, their mental health, their substance use.” The Governor, the Legislature, and the Mental Health Services Authority must answer the alarm through enlightened public policy and funding for state of the art treatment and services.

It stands to reason that we should pay close attention to the largest homeless population in the State of California, namely Los Angeles. There is broad consensus that Los Angeles must do better in addressing homelessness. The Point in Time Count has punctuated that. Consider the following:

  • Street homelessness has increased by 40% in the past five years.
  • The unsheltered population increased by 14% since last year.
  • Vehicular homelessness exceeds tent encampments with a 44% increase since last year.
  • Unaffordable rents and loss of income are the two driving factors for homelessness in Los Angeles County.

If we accept these increasingly alarming data as accurate, Los Angeles must come to grips with this question, “What is the appropriate and commensurate response to this deepening crisis?”

What role does LAHSA play? As self-described, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) is an organization committed to combating and ending homelessness in Los Angeles County. By utilizing comprehensive and solution-oriented strategies, along with data-driven research, LAHSA is able to act as a champion of equity and compassion for those who need it the most. At the forefront of LAHSA’s humanitarian mission is their dedication to outreach and engagement.

They interact and support houseless individuals living on the streets, encampments, and shelters, establishing a crucial connection and building trust. By engaging with those experiencing homelessness, LAHSA can better understand their needs and circumstances, and offer assistance to help them transition into stable housing and, eventually, society once more.

Though perhaps unfair, this organization is regularly scrutinized, routinely comes under fire, and is roundly criticized for being at the center of dysfunction. Even with new and enlightened leadership, its fate is yet uncertain. The question remains, “How will it answer the alarm?”

Well, what about the newest entity? The jury is out as LACAHSA was just established with its board recently seated as of May 2023. It enters a very complicated bureaucracy-burdened space that we know as homelessness services–pejoratively referred to as the “homelessness industrial complex.” Of record, the Los Angeles County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency is an organization dedicated to addressing and combating homelessness in Los Angeles County.

“The L.A. County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency was created to make housing more affordable, help people stay in their homes, and increase housing options for people experiencing homelessness. It is a regional organization focused on all of L.A. County and by having leaders from across the county, and a single CEO, it is accountable enough to cut through red tape so we can do more than ever before.” Question: “Do they have a creative and sustainable plan to answer the alarm?”

Stay tuned for part two.

Memorial Note: It is an appropriate measure of respect to acknowledge the passing of Commissioner Mike Neely. He was a warrior for those who faced tough times due to no fault of their own. I was pleased to appoint him first to LAHSA, and finally to the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults. May he rest in peace and in power.