Column: Is a new homeless agency the answer for L.A.? I’m skeptical but keeping an open mind
On a cool morning last week, long before dawn, I went to skid row to work on a story with Times photographer Francine Orr.
We first roamed those teeming streets together in 2005, and guess what: After 16 years of detailed strategies, grand promises and truckloads of money, it was hard to see much change.
“It’s worse,” Francine said as we walked past row after row of tents, watching cleanup crews shovel up mountains of trash. Here, in the U.S. epicenter of homelessness, we saw one person after another in mental distress, just a few blocks from the halls of power.
Today, you’ll be hearing about a new approach to tackling what even our elected officials have called a human catastrophe, and I’m not going to lie to you: The proposal from the Committee for Greater L.A. — a group of civic leaders funded by nonprofits and corporations to build a more equitable city — is easy to pick apart. It might never find traction. And I’m not sure, at this point, that I’d bet on it.
But it has one thing going for it: What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, so we need to try something different.
I’m not saying the way we’ve been handling things was a total disaster. In recent years, tens of thousands of people have been helped and housed, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of good souls in government and the nonprofit world who make a difference.
But our streets, parks, underpasses, alleys and beaches are still teeming, and the homeless ranks just keep swelling. Now, a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit is demanding better results. Encampments have expanded across Greater Los Angeles, dead bodies are retrieved daily, firetrucks race to blazes around the clock, and turf battles are raging between the housed and unhoused.
So what’s the new plan?
Well, that’s part of the problem. It’s not a specific strategy. It’s a proposed change in governance, with a new centralized authority established to carve out a consensus on policy, goals and a plan to achieve them. (If that sounds underwhelming, and your eyes are rolling back in your head, try not to scream just yet.)
To date, no one person or agency has been in charge. Among the many reasons is the fact that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has a lot of responsibility but not much authority (despite its name), and it’s not easy for it to answer to the often-unaligned interests of city and county officials.
Another problem is that Los Angeles County has 88 towns and cities, each with its own leadership alliances and differences. And those cities have little or no authority over mental health, public health, social services and other departments that come under the control of county government.
In short, the approach we currently have to solving homelessness is about as effective as it would be to have 100 people simultaneously coach the Lakers.
Raphael Sonenshein, who runs Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute for Governmental Affairs, developed the new governance proposal for the civic group, and he used a World War II analogy to describe our dysfunction on homelessness: It’s as if all the troops landed in Normandy, he said, without a map to Berlin.
So here’s what would be different under his proposal.
A new homeless policy agency — unnamed at the moment but referred to in the proposal as “the Center” — would have a governing board of seven members. They would include the mayor of Los Angeles and chair of the Board of Supervisors, as well as additional elected officials and a representative of the governor’s office. A chief executive officer would work for the board and run the daily operation. And then there’d be an oversight board of 15 or more people from faith and community groups, labor and business. The board would also include people who have been homeless.
I’m told that a number of public officials and others have been briefed on this, and many have offered at least tacit approval.
So what’s wrong with the plan? Maybe nothing at all, but the potential problems are many.
I can already imagine the political fights likely to break out over who gets appointed to the governing board and the oversight board, and even over the more fundamental question of who decides on the appointments.
And there are major philosophical differences today over the most basic issues on homelessness, such as the most effective and needed types of housing, where to put it and what it should cost. Divisions exist over the proper role of law enforcement, the best way to combat the drug epidemic, the civil rights of the mentally ill and the often-competing interests of the housed and unhoused.
But let’s assume for the sake of conversation that this thing gets pieced together. As constructed, this new body, agency, whatever you want to call it, would have no legal authority to do anything at all. It wouldn’t be like, say, the Metro board, which has budgetary and decision-making power.
So conceivably, the new agency could, against all odds, reach consensus on a plan, only to see public officials across L.A. thumb their noses at it.
But in theory, at least, the board members will be thrown into a room together to develop a mission statement and a plan to achieve it, then go back to where they came from and try to implement it. And the public will, to a degree, finally have a single, accountable, centralized body to look to, for either credit or blame.
“With the great public attention to homelessness, leaders in all sectors have incentives and pressures to present ideas or approaches that will solve the problem once and for all,” said the proposal.
Miguel Santana, chair of the Committee for Greater L.A., has worked on homelessness as both a city and county administrator, and he was involved in putting together this proposal. He told me his eyes are wide open to how many challenges lie ahead, but after years of study, he can’t think of a better strategy than this one.
A year and a half ago, in a speech to a community group, Santana said something that is as true today as it was then: “Angelenos are frustrated and becoming increasingly hostile. Their outrage is legitimate, and they are rightful to ask: Why is it so difficult and expensive to house people? What is the endgame? Who is in charge? As L.A.’s civic leadership, we should not be afraid to admit that we have failed.”
I’m half inclined to argue that we don’t need a new layer of bureaucracy established by unelected power brokers from civic and corporate life; we just need public officials to do the jobs we elected them to do.
But a quick tour of skid row, or any number of L.A. neighborhoods, suggests that’s not about to happen anytime soon.
So let’s roll the dice — because what’s there to lose?
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