There are nearly 47,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, 28,000 of them residing in the city of Los Angeles. They bed down in tents and sleeping bags under bridges and in doorways; they sprawl out in Metro train cars and stations. If they are lucky enough to have vehicles, they sleep in cars and campers parked on the street. Or they stay at shelters until the morning, when they amble off down the sidewalks, their voluminous possessions in tow.
It's not that city and county officials haven't seen them there. But the services, outreach and housing that government managed to offer were never enough to make a dent. When it came to crafting bigger solutions, the city and the county ignored each other. What passed for homelessness policy in the city was dictated by the lawsuits that kept the city lurching from one court settlement to the next.
It took an alarming 12% jump in homelessness from 2013 to 2015 and the spread of encampments across Los Angeles for city and county officials to finally create coordinated homelessness strategies. Some parts of those strategies have already gone into effect, such as putting more outreach workers on the streets. The centerpiece of the city's plan, though, was a call for 10,000 units of housing to be built over 10 years at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. To raise that money, the city has put on the November ballot Proposition HHH, which would authorize $1.2 billion in general obligation bonds paid for by property taxes. It's ambitious, expensive, and — finally — the city's first real commitment to provide housing on the scale necessary to significantly reduce chronic homelessness. It deserves a "yes" vote.
Whether you believe the city has a moral obligation to house homeless people or a civic obligation to prevent them from being a public nuisance, the only long term solution is housing. Continually jailing people for minor infractions (such as trespassing or public urination), offering them nightly shelter beds or shuffling them from street corner to street corner does not get people out of homelessness or stop more Angelenos from falling into the same trap. And as costly as this proposal is, leaving people without housing costs taxpayers more — in police, jail time, emergency room visits and services at the libraries, parks and other places where homeless people congregate. Last year, the city calculated it spent more than $100 million annually interacting with homeless people. County services for the homeless cost almost $1 billion more.
The bonds' cost to homeowners will vary over 29 years but will average a little under $10 for every $100,000 of property value. The majority of the funds will go toward permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless, who numbered about 8,500 in the city in January. These are the most vulnerable and entrenched of homeless people — those who have been on the streets for at least a year and suffer from a mental illness, substance abuse, a physical disability or a combination of these problems. They need housing that comes bundled with mental and physical health services and case management. And providing this kind of housing works: Years of studies by academics and service providers that have tracked homeless people in permanent supportive units show that the overwhelming majority stay housed during the first one to two years — a critical period for achieving stability. The creation of this new housing offers a great opportunity for the city to track people longer and produce more detailed data.
The city would use proceeds from the bonds to enter into long-term leases with developers and lend them about a third of the cost of their projects. With that commitment, developers could raise the rest of the money from state, federal, and private sources. No project would be approved until the developer had lined up the service providers capable of offering the prospective residents the specific health services and counseling they would need. County health officials are expected soon to sign a memorandum of understanding with the city to guarantee that services will be provided for all the housing that gets built.
The proposition would allow up to 20% of the bond funds to be used to build subsidized housing for low-income tenants. Such units are desperately needed too, in part to prevent more people from becoming homeless.
The city already helps finance about 300 new units of supportive housing annually, so there is a pool of developers locally with expertise in this type of project and specific proposals for building more. One issue, though, will be finding sites for them. The city has a dozen underused properties that it is considering, which would be a start. But developers will have to come up with many more sites, while also allaying residents' fears and making a compelling case for why their projects will blend into neighborhoods, not damage them.
That's a risk, as is the possibility that neighbors could file lawsuits and developers could fail to secure the necessary additional funding. But in one important safeguard for taxpayers, bonds would be issued only for approved projects, and no money would be borrowed until a project is approved and a developer has a service partner in hand. There also are provisions in the measure to guard against wasteful or inappropriate spending, although the City Council can and should improve on that oversight.
A larger concern for many may be the prospect of supportive housing developments going up in their neighborhood. Their hesitation is understandable, but they're fighting yesterday's battles. Homelessness is already spreading into just about every community in the county. The supportive housing projects built in recent years have been well-designed. These are not shelters. And their tenants, for the most part, haven't posed a problem for the neighborhood. Besides, consider the alternative: If voters reject this funding source, chronically homeless people will continue to languish on residential and commercial streets alike, turning neighborhood bushes into toilets and lawns into beds.
The homelessness problem is multifaceted, and Proposition HHH represents just one (albeit critical) part of the city and county's response. It won't clear the streets of homeless people within a few months or a couple of years. But without these housing projects, the problem cannot be solved. Let's stop pretending we don't see it.
After years of tepid steps on homelessness, the city has proposed a bold one. Let's give them the funding to take it.