Opinion

County or city: Who is responsible for dealing with L.A. homelessness?

Imagine the father of two young children whose mother has died or disappeared. The father is desperately trying to make ends meet so he can pay the rent.

And then he gets arrested, perhaps on a drug charge. He is convicted and jailed, and the children are sent to two different foster homes. This won't be cheap. Taxpayers are now on the hook, paying to house and supervise three people in three places.

But the father does his time – let's suppose it's two months – and gets out and wants to put his life back together and be reunited with his children. His time in jail was time away from work, though, so he lost his job and couldn’t pay his rent. So he also lost his apartment.

Now he's sleeping on the street, where he is more likely to suffer health problems that send him to the county’s emergency room. Or more likely to return to drug use and end up in the county’s jail. In either event, the public will pay.

Meanwhile, the taxpayers are footing the bill for his children to stay with strangers in foster care, where (according to data on children parted from their parents) they are likely to suffer emotionally and do poorly in school, despite the foster parents' best efforts and intentions.

What if we took the money that is going to those two foster homes and instead used it to rent an apartment for the father, who could get off the street and then – because he now has a place to live – get his children back from foster care? No new public money will be needed – in fact, public money will be saved. No new housing has to be built. There is no need for ongoing supportive services. If he gets a new job, or his old one back, he can pay his rent and the county can stop paying anything at all.

Who is responsible for thinking through solutions like that? Who is responsible for failing to think through solutions like that?

Los Angeles County government handles jails, foster care, emergency rooms and, in large portions of the county, law enforcement. But the county -- with its 100,000 employees, its $26.9-billion budget and its five-member Board of Supervisors -- is almost unknown compared with the city, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council. The city gets the headlines for its emergency declarations and its promises of funding. The county is mistakenly seen as an obscure bystander.

Yes, the city of Los Angeles has an important role in meeting the homelessness challenge. City laws and police practices determine whether people living on streets and sidewalks will be arrested and whether their belongings will be confiscated. City leaders have to figure out how to meet the need for housing units, how to pay for them and how to overcome community resistance to new buildings and new neighbors who have histories of homelessness and, perhaps, mental illness or addiction.

The same is true for Long Beach, the next most populous city in Los Angeles County. And for Glendale, the next biggest after that. And for the next, and the next – Santa Clarita, Lancaster, PalmdalePomona and in fact each of the county’s other municipalities. Their local policing and land use ordinances have a direct bearing on the fate of people who live on the streets of each of those cities. Any solution to L.A.’s homelessness necessarily includes all 88 city halls.

But county government has by far the largest responsibility for homelessness and for solutions meant to address it. The county is on the supply side, because county institutions feed the streets and stoke the misery when they discharge people who have nowhere to go: Young adults who age out of foster care with no home and no income. Medical patients who are discharged from county hospitals. Inmates leaving jail. Patients leaving mental health clinics. And the county bears at least partial responsibility for people such as domestic violence victims who leave shelters but can't go back home, and young sex trafficking victims who flee from their abusers.

Because it operates the jails, foster care and all those other institutions, it is the county as well that holds the key to ending much of the misery. County government is the chief provider of social services and has the obvious responsibility for people who are discharged to the streets. The county has the same responsibility that cities do to site and build affordable housing; but it also has the ability to craft solutions that require no new housing and little new money for people like the inmate returning from jail, wanting to get his kids back.

The county may lack the tools to deal with more systemic problems like poverty and inequity, both of which push people to the streets. But apart from the federal government, the county has the chief role in dealing with the fallout.

There are many ways the county can abdicate that responsibility, and it has tried most of them. For example, after the Board of Supervisors in 2006 adopted a plan to create five regional homelessness service centers, community opposition made several supervisors gun shy, and the county shelved the project. When the board rejected countywide expansion of then-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's Project 50 in 2009, Supervisor Gloria Molina argued that homelessness was more properly a state issue. Other supervisors balked at the potential cost. And over the years the county has sometimes squabbled with the city over control of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which is a joint project of both the county and the city.

Meanwhile, county government has struggled with a hide-bound bureaucracy that too often keeps people who want to help those in need from actually doing so. The county has stumbled on rules that, for example, earmark funds for foster care but not for family housing, or pay for a clinic patient's drug rehab but not a jail inmate's. The county for too long was unwilling or unable to work with the state and federal governments to remake funding rules to work for the homeless, and was instead content to make the homeless try to fit the rules.

So it's noteworthy when the county acknowledges its role as locus of both the homelessness problem and the homelessness solution, as it appears to be doing now.

The homelessness initiative that the board is to consider on Feb. 9 takes on county institutions and their discharge plans. It also deals with funding streams and bureaucratic silos. It even takes on community resistance, poverty, housing supply and what to do about those things.

Much of it has yet to be fleshed out. But the county does not, at present, appear to be shirking its responsibility.

Many of the elements in the county’s current plan have been seen before, so let’s hope the vote next week doesn’t turn out to be just another dry run. We've seen enough of those.

robert.greene@latimes.com

Follow me @RGreene2

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