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Column: A county-owned homeless service center in the old St. Vincent hospital? It just might happen

The statue of St. Vincent
Los Angeles County is preparing a bid to buy St. Vincent Medical Center and use it to provide services to the homeless.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes the wheels grind slowly in the halls of power, but L.A. County supervisors approved a plan Tuesday afternoon to waste no time preparing a bid to buy St. Vincent Medical Center and turn it into a homeless services center.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, citing the county’s growing crisis — on the same day the latest homeless count was set to begin — introduced a motion calling on the county to enter the bidding process once the hospital clears bankruptcy court proceedings. And the groundwork was already being laid by Sachi Hamai, the county’s chief executive officer.

“I want to move forward swiftly,” said Hamai, adding that she would favor a cash purchase rather than a lease or rental agreement.

The current owners have asked for bidders to move quickly, submitting proposals by Feb. 7. Solis asked staff to explore the best way for the county to fund a bid for the property and pull together a proposed purchase plan by next week, so the supervisors can keep things moving.

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I first wrote about St. Vincent a week ago, when reader Patricia McVerry contacted me to say she saw news that the hospital had been given permission by a bankruptcy judge to cease operation. With so many homeless encampments nearby, McVerry said, why not repurpose the hospital?

The day of that column I heard from L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who said he had been thinking about that very idea, and he introduced a council resolution to explore all options two days later. And then I spoke to Solis, who sent me a draft of her county motion Friday evening.

To be honest, I’m more accustomed to hearing public officials call for blue ribbon panels and six-month feasibility studies, which are often ways to put off doing anything at all. So the momentum here is refreshing, even though we’re early in the process, with a lot of work to be done and no guarantee the county will get what it’s after.

But at this point, with roughly 60,000 homeless people in the county and a critical shortage of virtually every type of short- and long-term housing as well as medical care and addiction rehab, there’s no time to sit around talking about what to do.

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St. Vincent hospital
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said St. Vincent can be repurposed to provide homeless services such as a behavioral health center, recuperative care beds and a sobering center.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

This is the time to move quickly, be creative, and take advantage of existing resources such as unused or underutilized buildings around the county.

It’s been taking years and costing a small fortune to build new supportive housing, so taking full advantage of a 366-bed hospital that doesn’t require major renovation to produce immediate benefits is a no-brainer. Especially when the county is recording three homeless deaths every day.

The county is intimately familiar with St. Vincent, having made an offer to buy the venerable facility at 3rd and Alvarado streets last year, only to lose out to a higher bidder.

“The county’s intent is not to operate SVMC as a hospital,” Solis said in her motion, but to partner with private or non-profit organizations and provide an array of homeless services.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the services could include a behavioral health center, recuperative care beds and a sobering center. He said one goal might be for the services to be an alternative to incarceration, and “that would be much more cost effective” and have better outcomes than locking people up.

At the moment, several thousand people with mental illness are in county jails.

“This is one heck of an opportunity. Let’s take advantage of it,” Ridley-Thomas said Tuesday in endorsing the Solis motion, which won unanimous approval.

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Of course, there’s still the money hurdle. It’s not yet clear what the hospital will cost, although county officials are hoping the bankruptcy status will lower the price. Hamai and others are exploring funding sources and may see if the state can help out. I say, hit the feds up, too. President Trump says he wants to help solve homelessness on the West Coast, and here’s a great opportunity to put some money behind the lip-flapping.

Last summer, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said the city would take a more “sensitive approach” to clearing trash and filth around homeless encampments. Now, sanitation officials say they are making adjustments to that system, including planning for police presence at some cleanup sites.

The hospital, which dates back a century and a half and was run for decades by the Daughters of Charity, once had about 1,000 employees, many of whom have retired or found other jobs as the hospital gradually scaled back its operations. Solis said she wants the county to find ways to assist the remaining employees rather than just cutting them loose. And maybe some can be retrained and stay put.

St. Vincent is owned by Verity Health System, which took the hospital into bankruptcy in 2018. As I wrote last week, the creditors include the hospital system’s former management company, Integrity Healthcare, which is controlled by entrepreneur-physician Patrick Soon-Shiong’s company NantWorks. Soon-Shiong also owns the L.A. Times.

St. Vincent’s long-standing challenge, local sources told me, was that it operated essentially as a charity hospital, with many low-income patients and public reimbursement rates that didn’t cover the cost of their care. It seems unlikely, those sources said, that another company would risk making a run at continuing to operate St. Vincent as a conventional hospital.

But if the county can get hold of the property, the potential to do something creative is immense. There’s room and equipment for medical care, spaces designed for residential care, and a large, separate office building that could be used for staff and administration.

Mitch O’Farrell
L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell is among those pushing to make St. Vincent a place to house the homeless.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

With the right leadership and design, St. Vincent could become a model for multifaceted homeless care. And O’Farrell wants to explore permanent supportive housing on a vacant lot to the west of the hospital, near a current building of senior housing and not far from the St. Vincent Meals on Wheels headquarters.

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The scuttlebutt on the homeless count, set to begin Tuesday night, is that the numbers are likely to go up rather than down. The tally won’t be known for many weeks.

But if, as expected, the count spikes — and even if it remains at roughly the same level — there’s going to be even greater public pressure for those in charge to come up with answers.

St. Vincent should be one of them.


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