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What L.A. can do now on homelessness

What L.A. can do now on homelessness
A number of homeless people live on the 42nd Street bridge above the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council passed a raft of motions Tuesday aimed at carrying out its leaders' promise to make the homelessness problem a priority. It's a start, even if some of the measures are anemic.

A ballyhooed pledge to commit $100 million to solving — that is, housing — homeless people materialized in the form of a newly created trust fund, but with only $16 million in it. Even the motion to declare a shelter crisis requires more steps by the council before the lumbering city bureaucracy can allow emergency shelters to be sited without going through the usual city planning process, and parking lots can be designated as shelters for people living in their vehicles.

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There is still a need for transitional housing to serve the homeless Angelenos with problems that are neither chronic nor quickly remedied.


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After that, the City Council still must craft (and agree on) another motion laying out the parking program and how it will work, including where the parking lots will be, how many vehicles will be allowed, who will administer the program and how to connect people living in cars with social service providers before they are allowed to park. Let's hope El Niño gets the memo and doesn't arrive until January.

"This is a long, hard slog," admits Councilman Mike Bonin, who authored the shelter crisis motion, calling the council's actions "baby steps." That's an apt description. The measures may keep people from dying on the streets during the torrential rains to come, but they only start the process of looking for the money needed for permanent solutions.

But there is one thing the council can do posthaste with some of that initial $16 million that will make a lasting difference: It can restore some of the federal funding that transitional housing programs in L.A. County stand to lose in the coming year.

One of the most important tasks that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority carries out each year is securing federal funding to house and serve homeless people. This week, the joint city-county agency will apply to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for $108 million in funds for 213 projects. Most of that money will go toward permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and rapid rehousing for those who are newly homeless or on the verge of homelessness.

Dropped from the authority's request this year are nearly 60 programs that provide transitional housing or social services. The more than $12 million that would have gone to those programs has been reallocated to other projects in the agency's application. This has caused an outcry from operators of transitional housing programs and their supporters. But officials of the Homeless Services Authority say they are hewing to new guidelines from HUD that prioritize funding for permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing. The rejiggering of funds is intended to give Los Angeles its best shot at getting the most federal money, the authority contends, and it's hard to argue with its reasoning.

Indeed, HUD's guidelines to applicants emphasize the need for more units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless and urge local agencies to review their transitional housing projects for cost-effectiveness before submitting them for funding. According to those guidelines, recent research shows that transitional housing is "generally more expensive than other housing models serving similar populations with similar outcomes." The federal agency suggests that rapid rehousing might be better for people who would otherwise go to transitional housing.

It's fine for HUD to prioritize permanent supportive housing, which experts believe is the best way to reach a deeply entrenched homeless population, and rapid rehousing, which helps people who may only need short-term rental assistance to stave off a descent into homelessness.

Nevertheless, there is still a need for transitional housing to serve the homeless Angelenos with problems that are neither chronic nor quickly remedied. The projects that the Homeless Services Authority decided not to seek federal funds for include a Venice-based housing and services program for women with children, as well as projects that house victims of domestic violence. These programs all help people who require housing for months, maybe a year, but not indefinitely. The need for that kind of housing remains whether the federal government subsidizes it or not.

As long as the Homeless Services Authority has confidence in these transitional housing programs, officials should seek the help of city and county officials who have pledged tens of millions of dollars to house homeless people. Here is one place they could start.

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