L.A. County gives some homeless convicts priority in housing

Homeless convicts on probation or parole are now eligible for government-subsidized housing under a new housing plan approved by Los Angeles County supervisors.

The change, which officials said was intended to help reduce chronic homelessness, would give some ex-prisoners priority over thousands of non-offenders who are awaiting government housing assistance, officials said.

“We’re doing this to try to get homeless off the street,” said Emilio Salas, the Los Angeles County housing authority’s deputy executive director.

The housing authority is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to update its program goals, policies and financial resources every year. Four of five Los Angeles County supervisors last week approved the agency’s revised plan.

Among other changes, the new plan waives a long-standing ban on homeless probationers and parolees obtaining housing subsidies and cuts the criminal history review period for such applicants from three years to two.

Critics of the revision charge that it is unfair to give criminals a chance to find affordable shelter before other needy people, such as senior citizens and the disabled. There are an estimated 191,000 individuals on a waiting list for vouchers, according to housing authority data.

“With a waiting list in the thousands for Section 8 vouchers, it is irresponsible for convicted felons to leap ahead of law-abiding citizens who have patiently waited years for housing,” said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the sole opponent to the housing agency’s plan. “This deplorable policy sends the wrong message — commit a crime, receive Section 8 housing.”

Salas said the agency’s plan was revised because community advocates identified the ban on homeless parolees and probationers as a major barrier to finding housing for them. And this was particularly unfair to those who had committed minor offenses, he said.

“It’s really not meant to address hard-core criminals, it’s meant to prevent barriers for low-level offenders,” Salas said.

The housing authority has 22,000 vouchers under the Section 8 program. Of those, 510 vouchers are set aside for individuals who are case-managed by community-based groups and referred to the housing authority as being in need of housing assistance, Salas said. The homeless are one such group for whom vouchers are set aside.

Housing officials said it was unclear how many probationers and parolees would qualify for the set-aside vouchers. But those deemed eligible would have to be clear of any serious crime, such as assault or robbery, for two years before being housed, Salas said

Housing officials said the criminal history review period had been cut from three years to two to give minor offenders, such as someone who had urinated on the sidewalk, a fairer chance at housing. Those committing serious crimes within the two-year review period would still be disqualified, Salas said.

Housing officials confirmed that if a parolee or probationer received one of the specially set-aside vouchers they could potentially “jump the line” ahead of others who are waiting to receive one of the 21,490 voucher awarded to the general population.

“But they jump the line only up until the 510 vouchers are utilized,” Salas said.

Lancaster officials are among those who have criticized the county’s approval of the revised housing authority plan.

“I am absolutely appalled and disgusted that the Board of Supervisors would allow felons to cut the line for Section 8 housing benefits,” Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said. “People who have played by the rules, led a clean life and have waited years to qualify for Section 8 housing now have to wait until criminals who are just out of prison take these valuable government-subsidized vouchers.”

Last month, Lancaster officials filed a complaint against the county and its housing authority, accusing the agencies of racial steering practices that essentially coerce blacks to move to Lancaster, giving the city a disproportionate share of blacks on federal housing assistance.

City officials say that at least 70% of Lancaster’s housing subsidy recipients are African American, although blacks account for little more than 20% of the city’s 157,000 residents. They charge that Section 8 tenants have overburdened Lancaster’s limited resources and now fear that ex-convicts with vouchers might be steered their way.