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Kaiser Permanente to commit $200 million to help communities reduce homelessness

Kaiser Permanente to commit $200 million to help communities reduce homelessness
Tents line San Julian Street in the skid row area of downtown Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

Healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente plans to invest $200 million in community efforts across the country to reduce homelessness, joining a growing list of health systems that are moving to address the housing crisis afflicting many large cities.

The commitment — which Kaiser is announcing Friday morning alongside a coalition of mayors and business leaders — marks one of the largest private-sector initiatives to tackle homelessness.

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And it underscores the growing recognition among healthcare leaders that safe, affordable and stable housing is at least as important as medical care in improving health.

"In the 21st century, we should not accept the whole concept of homelessness in our communities," said Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson, noting that the health system has been working on new strategies to improve the total health of regions Kaiser serves.

In recent years, hospital systems in Oregon, Florida and elsewhere have helped develop affordable housing. UnitedHealthcare, the nation's largest insurer, has been working in Phoenix to support housing for low- and moderate-income residents there.

But the sheer size of Kaiser's investment — which officials said would be made in the next two to three years — should help keep the focus on an issue that is becoming increasingly urgent for many cities, said Nan Roman, president of the National Coalition to End Homelessness.

"It's a lot of money," she said. "Kaiser's involvement can further elevate the issue and get businesses involved and get the public more involved. That will get through to policymakers."

Oakland-based Kaiser, a nonprofit insurer and medical system, serves more than 12 million Americans, including nearly 9 million Californians.

The new investments will target places where Kaiser operates, including Northern and Southern California, Washington state, Oregon, Hawaii, Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Senior Kaiser officials said they are still determining which projects will be funded but that they are looking for initiatives that will provide Kaiser a financial return, allowing the investment fund to continue to support projects into the future.

Requiring a financial return could preclude support for some community assistance, such as homeless shelters or other social services, which do not generate money for investors.

But developing housing — including units that serve upper- and lower-income residents — could offer investment opportunities to private-sector players such as Kaiser. And at a time when many communities, including Los Angeles, face severe shortages of affordable housing, such development is crucial.

More than 55,000 people in Los Angeles County were homeless last year when a count was taken by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Nationwide, more than 500,000 people are estimated to be homeless on any given day. That has made local communities increasingly desperate to find ways to tackle the crisis.

Los Angeles County this week approved a new budget that calls for $402 million in spending on homelessness prevention, rent subsidies, outreach, preservation of affordable housing, employment services and shelters.

The investment — a $143-million boost over the previous year — was made possible by a sales tax increase approved by voters last year, known as Measure H.

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At the same time, the city of Los Angeles has embarked on a $1.2-billion effort to build more affordable housing units, funded by a bond issue approved by local voters in 2016.

But finding resources for this kind of effort remains a challenge.

"Cities simply cannot address this issue alone," said Portland, Ore., Mayor Ted Wheeler. "We need broad community support to address the many complex issues that are causing homelessness."

Wheeler is a member of Mayors & CEOs for U.S. Housing Investment, a coalition that advocates for federal investment in affordable housing and homeless services and is working with Kaiser Permanente.

Twitter: @noamlevey

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