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Whatever happened to Project 50?

When a large enterprise like Los Angeles County government attempts something extraordinarily ambitious such as effectively eliminating homelessness, yet repeatedly falls short, it's sometimes hard to tell whether the rubble left by each failure forms a series of impenetrable barriers against the next attempt – or whether it instead forms a staircase layered with experience gained and lessons learned, leading upward toward eventual success.

The County Board of Supervisors sees a staircase, and on Tuesday it will try to climb it by adopting a far-reaching homelessness initiative. Much is at stake, not least of which is the well-being of tens of thousands of county residents now living in misery and danger on streets, sidewalks, shelters and jails.

The effort also is a test of government's ability to sufficiently cut through its own bureaucratic knots and move past its own political jealousies in order to perform as its constituents demand – and to vindicate democracy as a viable and meaningful system for meeting the challenges of basic human need, justice and equity.

In recounting and describing past failures, such as the homeless initiative of 2006, the goal is to map a successful route around the detritus of half-forgotten previous efforts.

So as the county tries again, it's worth looking back this time to 2009, when the board rejected a proposal to expand a program known as Project 50.

Based on a project in New York and built on the belief that people who had lived on the street for more than a year should be offered housing units rather than shelters, and supportive services to address issues like mental illness and addiction, Project 50 was championed by then-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

His project had housed 50 chronically homeless people, and he – and the county’s deputy chief executive officer, Miguel Santana – wanted to turn it into Project 500 (and then presumably 5,000, and upward) and take it countywide.

As bad luck would have it, though, Santana's report and Yaroslavsky's motion came before the board on May 26, 2009. It was the depth of the great recession and California’s budget crisis. That morning, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had emerged from the Memorial Day break with plans to erase a multibillion-dollar state shortfall by eliminating programs like CalWorks, the state-funded, county-administered  welfare-to-work program. Under the circumstances, Yaroslavsky's colleagues were in no mood to entertain expanding a program that would impose substantial new costs.

But wait, Santana told them – Project 50 saves money. The county was spending $650 million annually  dealing with homeless people in repeat visits to emergency rooms, clinics, jails and other county institutions. By spending some money upfront, hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to the county health department, the sheriff and others would be avoided.

The supervisors weren’t having it. That should have raised some questions then, and it raises them today, seven years later.

For example – Was the failure to move forward essentially a matter of bookkeeping? In other words, was the problem that all those the savings would be recouped by county departments other the ones that did the spending? Was the county seriously willing to pass up hundreds of millions of dollars in cost avoidance because the inter-departmental accounting was difficult?

It’s infuriating to think that might be the case. Yet the current board's decision to merge three departments – health services, mental health and public health – just might help by allowing revenue and costs from the three units to be more easily exchanged. Meanwhile, let’s note that a recent report says the county now spends $1 billion dealing with homeless people without the initiative. So any new spending to keep people housed and treated should be balanced against the expected avoidance of at least part of that current $1 billion cost.

Or was it a question of territory? Yaroslavsky represented most of the wealthiest county neighborhoods, like Malibu, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, plus much of the San Fernando Valley – but Project 50 at first focused on people on skid row, in Gloria Molina's district. That violated a county rule of the roost. Each supervisor is expected to keep his or her nose out of each other’s district.

Or was it personal? People who worked at the Hall of Administration in that era confide that the other supervisors flat-out disliked Yaroslavsky, and that their staffs didn’t like his, because Yaroslavsky and his people had a missionary zeal about Project 50 that the others found off-putting. And that reaction may be understandable – but what if Yaroslavsky was right about his program? So what if his colleagues were miffed? Did the welfare of thousands of people living on the street really depend on how chummy five elected officials were?

The supervisors say everything's different this time; they all like each other, and they're all on the same page on the homelessness initiative. Terrific. But the current line-up changes again at the end of the year when two supervisors are termed out and two new ones are voted in, and then the five of them will live with each other for years, much like strangers thrown together in a beach house on one of those reality shows. There will be disagreements, bruised egos and factions – but none of that can be allowed to undermine the county's commitment to move people off the street.

Meanwhile, anyone who fails to have spotted tension even among the current members hasn’t been paying very close attention. Success will depend on their being grown up enough to work for a common purpose despite how they may feel about each other.

Or was the breakdown in 2009 ideological – so ideological that the supervisors’ predispositions led them to see different facts?

Consider, for example, the question of just who the homeless are. To some, it was simply common knowledge that pretty much everyone on the street was affected by some degree of mental illness. How many? 95%, Santana told the Board of Supervisors. That suggested that the Department of Mental Health should  lead of any homelessness reduction effort, which should be based on providing permanent supportive housing, with continuing treatment at its core.

But no, others asserted – and continue to assert – the issue is poverty, equity, affordable housing. Only 20% have some mental illness, and the rest lost their homes because they were living on the edge economically, and then were pushed over by some crisis, such as an illness, or a job loss. That means the county’s primary effort should be in economic justice and economic assistance, and programs like rapid rehousing, to quickly get a roof back over people's heads and help them with their rent until they are again economically self-sufficient.

Of course a comprehensive homelessness plan has to deal with multiple populations with distinct challenges. But seriously, how could county officials be so far apart on the basic facts of homelessness? And doesn’t that affect how well they respond? Should their focus today be on the population subset known as the chronically homeless, where mental illness and substance abuse do indeed play a major role? Or will those folks always be there, so that the emphasis should be on the newly homeless, a population that seems to have exploded since the great recession?

Are the facts on the ground so unknowable that service providers and commentators can select their own, to suit their own ideologies?

There are federal standards for counting, describing and diagnosing the homeless population, and using those standards, it may well be possible to bring the various assertions about who the people are into accord with each other.

But if that's the case, the clarifying message is not getting out. Those of us in the news media may be doing a lousy job of differentiating between the various homeless populations and their needs, but that’s because county and city leaders are doing a monumentally poor job of explaining, leaving reporters to pick and choose from among assertions and presumed experts.

Furthermore, there historically has been tension between service providers who emphasize emergency shelter and those who press for permanent supportive housing. The factions compete for limited public contracting funds, and they squabbled over the "housing first" model on which Project 50 was based.

People from both factions have helped craft the county’s new plan. Does that mean that particular fight is ancient history?

Are the supervisors, at least, finally on the same page about what the problem is and what to do about it? Yes, they say. But there are the occasional troubling signals.

"Mental illness continues to be the major factor contributing to the homelessness problem," Supervisor Michael Antonovich asserted earlier this month.

"[A]lthough the most visible percentage of our homeless population are those on the streets who are often mentally ill, they represent only about 20% of our total homeless population," Supervisor Sheila Kuehl wrote last week.

So what does all this mean? If many of the problems that doomed expansion of Project 50 continue to exist, is the county's latest homeless initiative destined for failure?

No, it doesn’t have to be that way. A comprehensive plan just may be able to unite people with different outlooks and priorities and to get important things done. The supervisors deserve credit for getting to this point.

But because so much is at stake, they should expect to be watched carefully. They must understand that they are inviting scrutiny of their working relationships with each other. They should do a better job of gathering, understanding and disseminating the facts of homelessness, and should acknowledge and account for differences in the understanding of those facts when they arise. They should consider whether it is more important that their particular diagnoses of the homelessness problem prevail, or that they get people safely and sustainably off the street. They should know that most of the things that they tout today, like interdepartmental cooperation, strategic plans, metrics and the like have been tried before, and that those previous efforts should be the steps on which they climb rather than the rubble that blocks their way.

They should know that the people who watch them and talk about them – their constituents, journalists, commentators – are somewhat jaded by past failures, but want them to succeed in ending the misery that is homelessness and the inefficiency and ineffectiveness that too often is county government, and will support them if given half a chance.

After all, this is the easy part. Just wait until they try to figure out how to raise money to build needed housing, and how they convince their constituents to welcome the new construction and their new, formerly homeless neighbors.

robert.greene@latimes.com

Follow me @RGreene2

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