After nine hours of deliberation, the panel of 50 that must recommend how L.A. County should spend $355 million a year of new homeless funds faced an existential reckoning.
Either the group was too large, or the mission too daunting. But something had to give.
The third of the panel's four scheduled meetings ended last week with votes on whether to form a subcommittee to dig more deeply into the morass of competing interests — rejected — or to toss the quandary back to county executives for more guidance — approved.
A carefully scripted plan to reach consensus on how to divide the money over 21 strategies, from better street outreach to more rental subsidies, quickly faltered under the complexity of funding sources, philosophical nuances and strong personalities.
The committee, formed after voters approved a quarter-cent homeless sales tax in March, has until May 10 to recommend a three-year budget to the Board of Supervisors.
To maintain the possibility of meeting that deadline, chairman Phil Ansell, the head of the county Homeless Initiative, used the promise of a free lunch to win the panel's consent for an all-day session on May 4.
Once it was agreed that another meeting would be needed, Ansell observed that the meeting hall — the glass-walled room on the 30th floor of the former TransAmerica building — would be available both morning and afternoon that day.
Ansell, whose unflappable personality and powerful voice were the backbone of the proceeding, at first got a tepid response to his proposal for a double meeting, but raised a sufficient show of hands by throwing in a free lunch.
It was the joke, not the bribe, that prevailed, earning Ansell more time to mold 50 perspectives into a single voice. He was trying to manage a cacophony of the like-minded, those in government and the nonprofit world who have dedicated themselves to beating the city's most intractable humanitarian crisis. It turned out that they see the task through many different lenses, and many wanted the chance to say so.
There was Joe Lyons, representing the San Gabriel Valley Coalition of Governments, intervening repeatedly to ask about the mechanism to engage local government.
There was Reba Stevens, representing the formerly homeless, repeatedly asking where was "lived experience" in the plan.
There was Ruth Schwartz, executive director of the venerable organization Shelter Partnership, asking where was the extensive research that backed up the plan she worked on a decade ago, ultimately shelved for lack of funds.
There was John Horn, vice president of the San Fernando Valley homeless agency LA Family Housing, saying experience in the field hasn't exactly supported the high expectations for "rapid rehousing" as the way to move people quickly from the street to housing.
In two previous meetings the group reached a consensus on a couple of strategies but left others on the table. Then Thursday they tackled the toughest asks, such as $340 million over three years for rapid rehousing and $290 million for shelters.
The problem was that county officials sketching out preliminary wish lists had broken the bank, asking for $615 million by the third year, nearly twice what would be raised by the new tax.
No one had yet made a proposal to shave any of the requests.
But Schwartz of Shelter Partnership gained several assenting voices with a strong protest that the amount requested for rental assistance and services — $87 million over three years — was far too low.
Then the prospect of a pure consensus seemed to evaporate when Andy Bales, chief executive officer of the Union Rescue Mission, made a short speech taking issue with the overall plan. Bales said the strategies failed to address the immediate needs of tens of thousands of people living on the streets whose suffering would be relieved more quickly if half the money was given directly to organizations that already provide shelter.
The proposal received no support.
With time running out, Ansell proposed forming a subcommittee of 12 members to hash out the difficult issues and make a recommendation to the whole group on May 4. That idea got scant support.
The contretemps was broken when Richard Llewellyn, Los Angeles city administrative officer, asked whether county executives should be asked to revise their "wish lists" into line with the resources.
The proposal carried by a majority of hands.
Ansell, a veteran of large group deliberations, remained undaunted. He later said he is confident that despite the rough edges a consensus would be achieved on all or most of the strategies by the deadline.