L.A. County considers another path on homelessness: prevention

The calls on the hotline reflected life at its messiest:

A single mom who left her boyfriend and was living in a motel. An out-of-stater who came for a job that fizzled. A low-income family with medical bills and a three-day eviction notice.

The callers had one thing in common. They were not homeless — yet.

When they reached the referral line at L.A. Family Housing in North Hollywood, the pained response once would have been, “If you wake up in your car tomorrow, call back,” said Kris Freed, vice president of programs at the non-profit agency.

That’s because traditional services for homeless people — shelters, housing assistance and case management — have one fundamental requirement: that the recipient is verifiably homeless.

Now, a new and largely unproven approach is emerging as a major element of Los Angeles County’s homeless initiative. Those drafting plans for the Measure H sales tax funds approved by voters in March have proposed spending more than $40 million over the next three years to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Those deemed eligible for prevention funds could receive cash assistance to pay for rent, security deposits or moving expenses. They could also receive other forms of help, such as legal aid.

The prevention strategy was tested in a pilot program last year and continues on a limited basis with a county grant from the Department of Public Social Services. Based on those tests, county officials estimate a prevention program would spend about $12,000 on each family served and $7,857 on each individual, including staff costs.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority initially asked for more than $100 million in prevention funds over the first three years from Measure H.

That request was pared last week by 60% as county officials recalibrated their initial requests for Measure H money.

“Since prevention is a relatively new endeavor for us — both here in the county and across the nation — we feel it’s smart to start smaller, learn what works and build on our successes as we move forward,” said Phil Ansell, director of the county’s Homeless Initiative.

Despite the cuts, Ansell didn’t back off the county’s long-stated goal of keeping 30,000 people from becoming homeless. Prevention services are included in several other strategies, and funds can be added in the future as the program proves itself, he said.

At any level, they represent a pioneering strategy to seal the pipeline into homelessness as other programs focus on helping others out of it. Officials acknowledge that they still have a lot to learn about a strategy that is too new to have proven results.

Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, conceded that the agency has “almost no experience with prevention; it’s not a tool we have utilized well or thoroughly.”

The questions surrounding prevention are many: Who should be eligible? How long should they be helped? What about those who repeatedly fall into crisis?

The toughest problem is figuring out who needs help, Ansell said. Most people who lose permanent housing through eviction or some other reason never become homeless, he said.

Two hypothetical candidates for prevention aid might seem equally at risk, “but then one becomes homeless and one doesn’t,” Ansell said.

The $2-million pilot program has provided some data on its cost and effectiveness.

Through March, the program assisted 413 people, said Joshua Hall, Family System Integration Manager at the homeless authority. In all, they received about $840,000 in rental assistance and $500,000 in other forms of assistance including deposits, fees, hotel vouchers and case management.

Success is hard to measure. Hall said 185 still receive assistance. Of the 228 who have exited the program, nearly 80% obtained permanent housing. The remainder either went into crisis housing programs or resolved their own problems, he said.

The long odyssey of Nycole Castellanos and her family illustrates how prevention works and also what makes it challenging. Castellanos, her husband and two children ended up in a winter shelter in Santa Clarita after he lost his job.

The winter shelter referred them to L.A. Family Housing, which used funds designated for homeless people to get them stabilized. They stayed in a motel for a month and then found an apartment.

“They helped us with the first month and several months after,” Castellanos said.

Then a dispute with their landlord caused them to leave. They ended up in a motel again, paying their own rent but unable to afford the upfront fees for a new apartment.

Because they had a home this time, even though it was a motel, they weren’t eligible for what is called rapid re-housing assistance, which is meant for homeless people.

Prevention funds paid their first month’s rent, security deposit and a portion of the next two months for the apartment in North Hollywood where they now live.

“It was really hard for me,” Castellanos said of the whole experience. “My kid, he sat at a homeless shelter one time for Christmas. It was humbling.”

The family’s multiple moves reflect the housing instability considered the key indicator of families who can be helped by prevention, said Alynn Gausvik, intake and assessment manager at the North Hollywood homeless services agency.

“It’s people who are on the edge,” Gausvik said. “They’re facing instability. They aren’t sure where to turn.”

Gausvik, who recently earned a master’s degree in social work, said growing research suggests that prevention pays off when the right families are targeted.

“It’s usually cheaper to help someone stay in an apartment than to get them a new apartment,” she said. “Better than leave, bump around with crisis housing, get an eviction on their record.”

County homeless officials consider prevention crucial to their plans because the thousands of people continually falling into homelessness tend to nullify any success in finding homes for those already homeless.

Based on surveys taken as part of the 2016 count, the homeless authority estimates that more than 150,000 “episodes” of homelessness occur each year, including those who become homeless more than once during the year.

The initial prevention strategy included in the county’s Measure H spending plan projected assistance to about 700 families each year and to 2,200 individuals in the first year, growing to 5,500 by the third.

“The balance between the role of prevention versus the role of getting families and adults who are currently homeless out of homelessness is one of the core issues of this group.” Ansell told the Measure H citizen planning panel at a recent meeting.

Members of the group had a lot of questions.

“I’m sitting here with some anxiety,” said Reba Stevens, a formerly homeless woman sitting on the panel as one of its “lived experience” representatives. “I feel it’s important that we are provided with data that actually shows the outcomes. What has worked? What hasn’t worked?”

doug.smith@latimes.com

@LATDoug

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