Defeating homelessness

ANTONIO R. VILLARAIGOSA is the mayor of Los Angeles.

TODAY, IF ALL goes as planned, a group of activists will pitch tents on the south lawn of City Hall to highlight the need to combat homelessness in Los Angeles. They’ll come bearing a list of demands, addressed to me, that amount to nothing less than the eradication of homelessness in our city on an express timetable.

What a miraculous day it would be if we could quickly meet these demands. But the reality is that the path to substantive change is not an easy one; homelessness is a complex problem rooted in decades of public policy failures, a rise in poverty and a lack of affordable housing.

Of course, everyone in our community has a right to shelter, food and assistance. By working together in partnerships public and private, governmental and philanthropic, we can make progress toward the goal of eradicating homelessness.

The construction of permanent, supportive, affordable housing is the cornerstone of my office’s efforts. Recently, we announced plans to spend $137 million from the city’s affordable-housing trust fund to build housing for Angelenos with the greatest needs. This money will leverage more than $1 billion in state and federal funds and enable us to build nearly 1,500 units of housing for low-income and homeless people. In addition to covering construction costs, part of the money will be used to subsidize rent and rehabilitation services.


Imagine that: $1 billion can provide only 1,500 units of housing in a city with a homeless population of nearly 50,000. If you include the county, that population balloons to more than 90,000.

The magnitude of homelessness in Los Angeles makes $1 billion look like pocket change. Turning the tide on poverty will be neither quick nor easy; it will be a long process, and it is a challenge.

One of my priorities when I took office in 2005 was to join with the county to streamline the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. This agency coordinates funding and programming for the nonprofit groups that provide support to those most in need. Now it must create a strategic plan to address the many root causes of homelessness, including mental health issues, substance abuse and a lack of job training.

In addition, my office has undertaken major reforms at the city’s Housing Authority. This critical agency, which suffered from years of gross fiscal mismanagement and inefficiency, has stabilized. No longer will it operate at a $24-million annual loss or issue worthless vouchers to families in need.


For two years in a row, I have fully funded the city’s affordable-housing trust fund at the maximum allowable amount of $100 million. This $200-million investment will allow us to break ground on housing complexes that will keep people from sleeping on the street.

Clearly, there is much more to be done. Los Angeles needs a permanent funding source for the housing trust fund. Neighborhoods must embrace the placement of affordable housing and service centers throughout the city. Caring Angelenos must increase philanthropic efforts to target the problem. We must expand our approach to homelessness and find innovative ways to target its root causes.

The federal government must contribute its fair share. This year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development allotted $52,521,696 in funding for anti-homelessness initiatives in the L.A. area. That’s a 13% decline in funding since last year. As our major partner in this mission, Washington cannot abdicate its responsibility to respond to urgent needs in the “homeless capital” of the nation. Our level of funding should be rising, not falling.

Everyone deserves dignity -- and security. Recent efforts by my office and the Police Department to reduce crime and disorder on skid row through the Safer City Initiative, which put about 50 additional police officers in the area, have drawn the wrath of some advocates. They say that homelessness itself is being criminalized; in fact, the homeless are being protected. They have enough of a daily struggle without having to fend for themselves against crime.


I understand the frustration of the protesters at City Hall today, and I share their commitment to finding permanent solutions to this great moral and social crisis of our time. We may not agree on every aspect of this struggle, but I know we are all fighting on the same side.