The most vulnerable person living on the streets of skid row is a 65-year-old veteran who has been homeless for 37 years. He has kidney and liver disease, has been to hospital emergency rooms four times in the last three months and has been arrested four times in the last six months.
Los Angeles County officials know this because 25 county workers canvassed downtown streets in December, waking and interviewing people in the early morning hours. They ended up with a list of 50 in a sort of catalog of doom and hope. Doom, because the 50 are those most likely to die on the streets if not rescued (see, for example, the Dec. 21 report (PDF) from the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness, which calculates homeless deaths in the county at one every day). And hope, because the county and city have promised to put them in permanent homes with the medical, mental, drug and other care that they need.
It's part of Project 50, imported from New York City by Common Ground, the organization that has achieved some notable success in getting chronically homeless people off Manhattan's streets and into housing and care.
At a briefing last month, county workers and leaders were cautiously upbeat about the project, and there's no reason they shouldn't be. They bit off a piece of the homelessness problem that is relatively easy to digest.
There are more than 70,000 people living in the parks, under the freeway offramps and on the streets of Los Angeles County. As Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it, "The problem is just too daunting, so we go on and do other things."
Housing 50 people, though, ought to be something that City Hall, with its housing funds and programs, and Los Angeles County, with its service programs, can manage.
The region has the wealth and expertise to end chronic homelessness and, in fact, may also have the service providers already on hand to do what Common Ground is doing. But importing this team from New York cut through the starts-and-stops of homeless fixes that have been tried here before.
City and county government have sometimes appeared to be in the doldrums on homelessness, like sailors who used to get stuck in the tropics when the winds disappeared. Some ships were stranded forever, and their passengers died of hunger, thirst and boredom. Others appeared stalled but actually were making great progress as the currents, rather than the winds, moved them forward.
It can be hard to tell whether the city and county are drifting or moving toward a common destination. A county plan for five service centers was scrapped, in part because of neighborhood resistance. The city was sued over its law to ban sidewalk sleeping and criticized over its initiative to step up skid row arrests.
Still, there is evidence that both governments are making some progress. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has reinvented housing strategies while designating $100 million for housing the homeless. The county, while abandoning its five-centers plan, is putting up an equal amount for supportive services in those new homes.
County Supervisor Gloria Molina is leading efforts to get children off the streets, instituting a zero-tolerance policy for kids on skid row. Last year, Molina's efforts pulled 696 children into shelters and, of them, 160 into permanent housing.
So Project 50 should be watched, rather than dismissed as a ridiculously puny response. Phase 1 gathering data was a success. Now, this month, begins Phase 2: putting the 50 in homes. Then comes Phase 3 and the real challenge: keeping them there.
For the effort ever to go beyond 50, much more is required. New York City spends more than $1.7 billion a year on housing and caring for the homeless, so L.A.'s financial commitment still falls far short.
The county must agree to join the city's process for funding supportive housing. The county and city must join on a 10-year plan for getting the homeless housed. And perhaps the biggest challenge: Communities must make room for supportive housing.
But Project 50, if it works, can help start moving the players in the same direction.