Op-Ed: Renewing Our Focus on Homelessness

By Councilman Mike Bonin

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency released the disappointing and unsurprising results of its biennial Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, delivering the heartbreaking news that while we are housing more people than we ever have, we have significantly more people living on our streets, alleys and sidewalks of Los Angeles.

The City and County have adopted a “Housing First” strategy, which is a much smarter way of addressing homelessness than our previous models. It has been very successful – but our supply simply does not meet our tremendous demand. The City Council recently formed a special Committee on Homelessness, and one of our top priorities must be increasing the housing stock available to get people off the streets and into a home.

Along with my colleague Jose Huizar, chair of the committee, I have proposed several ideas to close the gap between the supply of housing for the homeless and the enormous demand, including:

Alternatives to Sidewalk Encampments – For nearly a decade, the City has been bound by the Jones Settlement, the result of a lawsuit contending it is cruel and unusual punishment to forbid people from sleeping on the street if there is not enough housing or shelter. As part of the legal agreement, the City has effectively allowed sidewalk homeless encampments to spring up throughout the City. That constitutional mandate could be better and more humanely met by providing alternatives to sleeping on the sidewalk — such as shared housing, bridge housing, or transitional shelters.

As a result of the Jones settlement, we spend time, energy and money accommodating a right to sleep on the sidewalk. That does a disservice to people who are homeless, and it does a disservice to our neighborhoods. We need to focus on the right to sleep in housing, and until we provide enough permanent supportive housing for everyone who needs it, we need a range of options for the 29,000 homeless people who go without shelter. It is unconscionable to leave people to fend for themselves on the streets or in sidewalk encampments.

More Units for the Coordinated Entry System – To implement a “Housing First” approach, philanthropic organizations, government agencies, businesses and individuals have developed a “Coordinated Entry System (CES)” to help move people from the streets and into housing and services. The strategy is smart and was long overdue, but to be fully successful it requires an adequate supply of housing, which does not yet exist. The City needs to determine if it can legally require or incentivize that affordable housing units being built as a result of state “density bonuses” can be used for the placement of homeless people via CES. If we cannot, we need to seek special state authorization to do so.

Flexible Housing Program – The County has a successful program, granting rapid housing to homeless people who are frequent users of the Department of Health Services. The program saves the County money, and helps house the chronically homeless. In the City, many Los Angeles Fire Department units have tremendous call loads responding to cases of homeless people in distress – often the same people, repeatedly. My proposal directs the City to negotiate with the County to determine if we can buy into the program and house these people rapidly.

Until we close the gap between supply and demand, we also need to change our response to homelessness. Too often, our homeless first responders are members of the Los Angeles Police Department. In this year’s budget, I am pleased that we are providing for more training in crisis intervention and mental health, and I am working with Chief Charlie Beck and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl to create more SMART teams, where trained clinicians roll out with officers to respond to calls.

These proposals and efforts are a small start to what needs to be a relentless effort, building new units, expanding the supply of housing to CES, and offering more front-line services and alternatives to street encampments. We need to do a lot more to provide the resources to make sure we move past unproductive battles about the right to sleep on the street, and start securing and guaranteeing the right to live in housing.

Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents the Westside, is vice chair of the Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness.