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L.A. County’s homeless coordinator to step down

 Phil Ansell, L.A. County Homeless Initiative director, speaks before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Phil Ansell, director of the L.A. County Homeless Initiative, speaks at a Board of Supervisors meeting in February.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The head of Los Angeles County’s Homeless Initiative, which has coordinated the response to the homelessness crisis and managed the disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, is stepping down.

Phil Ansell is not a household name, but he has played an outsized role in the design and implementation of the Measure H sales tax, which was passed by voters in 2017 and has funded a multitude of services to help homeless people leave the streets.

This new source of revenue has allowed for the homeless services system in Los Angeles to expand dramatically, even as the number of people living on the streets and in shelters continues to increase. The money has been used for such things as hiring more outreach workers and funding services at permanent supportive housing units, and starting programs that help clear the criminal records of homeless people.

Ansell spent more than two decades rising through the ranks of the county’s Department of Public Social Services before taking the helm of the Homeless Initiative in 2015. He will retire March 31.

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“Over the last five years, we have doubled the number of people housed each year through the homeless services system, dramatically enhanced and expanded interim housing, and defined the shortage of affordable housing and corresponding unaffordable rents as the central cause of our homelessness crisis,” Ansell wrote in an email to colleagues, obtained by the Times.

Despite these successes, the number of people living on the streets and in shelters has consistently grown. Last year’s point-in-time count, which occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, estimated the county’s homeless population at 66,433, up nearly 13% from the previous year.

The pandemic has probably increased these numbers and put many people living on the streets and in shelters in danger of dying from the virus. Ansell oversaw the county’s push to rent hotels to house medically vulnerable homeless people through Project Roomkey. As that program began to wind down, he helped lead an effort to use money from the state to purchase hotels and other properties to house homeless people permanently.

A judge is pushing the city and county of Los Angeles to clear homeless camps near freeways, but vacated an order requiring the clearance.

In an interview Monday, Ansell said Measure H funding, which was projected at $355 million a year but has taken a hit as a result of the pandemic, is not sufficient to address the needs of the local homeless population.

He cited a report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which found that the region would require $500 million a year, on top of what is already being spent, to fund an “optimal homeless services system.”

Still, as the first director of the county Homeless Initiative, he looked back with pride at how he and others marshaled support for a tax that would add funding to help Los Angeles’ most vulnerable.

“It was inconceivable when we started in August 2015 that a measure like Measure H would’ve generated sufficient support to be approved by the electorate by two-thirds vote in an off-year election,” said Ansell, who will be 61 when he retires.

“I think what we’ve done as a community — as a movement — to utilize the resources of Measure H, has been outstanding,” he added.

Richard Corral, a homeless advocate who has opposed how the Measure H money has been spent, particularly criticizing allocations to cities in the San Gabriel Valley as inadequate, said he welcomed Ansell’s departure.

Corral credited Ansell with creating “a strong foundation on which to build,” while holding him responsible for flaws in “agenda-setting and solution-making.”

Noting that leaders also have stepped down at L.A. City’s Housing and Community Investment Department and LAHSA in the past year, Corral said it was time for a fresh start at the Homeless Initiative, too.

But several colleagues, along with elected officials, echoed Ansell’s own assessment: that despite the continued increases in homelessness in Los Angeles, the county would be worse off if not for the work of the Homeless Initiative.

“Under [Ansell’s] leadership we passed Measure H and launched the Homeless Initiative — finally meeting the worst homelessness crisis in history with historic levels of funding and resources,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn in a written statement. “Because of his efforts, tens of thousands of people are off the streets.”

Plans to employ the minimalist structures, known as ‘tiny homes,’ have blossomed into expensive development projects.

LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston worked closely with Ansell to oversee the expansion of the county’s homeless services system.

“L.A. County and our homeless response system would not be where they are today without the tireless commitment of Phil Ansell,” she said.


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