When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed in April to build transitional shelters for homeless people, the idea was to give them a place to live that served as a bridge between the streets and a permanent home. These trailers would not be the typical overnight shelters. They would be safe shared places where someone could live for several months, having a bed of his or her own along with secure storage space and the freedom to bring pets and human partners. Service providers onsite would offer case management, counseling and, most important, help obtaining an apartment.
Garcetti set aside $20 million in his 2018-19 budget for shelters, with each of the 15 council districts slated to receive about $1.3 million to provide 100 shelter beds. With the right services, homeless people would need the beds for only a few months before graduating into permanent housing. If the average stay in a bed was three months, as Garcetti estimated, his $20-million plan would bring temporary housing to 6,000 homeless people a year.
But when the first of the bridge shelters opens in September in a city-owned parking lot near the Olvera Street marketplace, it will have cost the city $2.7 million — twice what the mayor allocated per council district. It will have only 45 beds, and the service provider running the shelter estimates the average stay will be six months, not three.
What happened here? Some of the cost overrun was caused by engineering issues, such as the sloping lot and a new sewer line that cost $200,000. But most of the extra costs came from outfitting the shelter more elaborately to make it more appealing to homeless people.
Spending that $45 million on shelters means it won’t be available for other vital homeless housing efforts.
That’s not a preposterous idea. Homeless people, inured to life on the streets, may not be eager to trade it for an overcrowded warehouse of a shelter. The more inviting the shelter, the more homeless people will be willing to live there.
The El Pueblo project initially consisted of just a collection of three large trailers for bedrooms and one for a bathroom and laundry facility. When the service providers from the People Concern, which was hired to run the site, saw that there was no common gathering spot, they suggested building a deck outside the trailers — a courtyard of sorts that would function as dining room and recreational area while leveling out the sloping land for disabled residents. Another trailer was added for the service providers working there.
It’s reasonable for service providers to want the most efficacious facilities they can get. But the city should not be blowing its budget on shelters. And the cost overrun at El Pueblo isn’t a one-time miscalculation; Garcetti’s office now expects every shelter to be as well-appointed as the El Pueblo one and cost something north of $2 million.
Granted, the City Council had already boosted the shelters’ budget by $10 million. And city officials are hoping to earmark for shelters $45 million of the $85 million they are getting from the state for homeless programs. Spending that $45 million on shelters, however, means it won’t be available for other vital homeless housing efforts.
Officials in the mayor’s office say they could have done the shelter program at the original budget — but they didn’t have to. And at this price, they say, they have a better shot at getting homeless people into the shelters.
So, let’s make this clear: The city should keep building shelters. We need them.
But let’s also make this clear: The city can’t afford to overspend on temporary housing when what we desperately need is permanent housing for homeless people — and a lot of it.
Mayor Garcetti’s homelessness proposals are appropriately ambitious, but they’re also fueled by a fantasy math that’s exasperating. As it turns out, we will not be able to temporarily house 6,000 people in $20 million worth of shelters. And, no, at the rate we’re going, we will not build 10,000 units of homeless housing with $1.2 billion of Proposition HHH money, as he and other city officials said we would. (The city can steer that construction back to its initial estimate — Garcetti said that too.)
The El Pueblo shelter will soon be completed. Let’s see how it works. But the city also needs to build the future shelters at something closer to the original budget. The city should keep its focus — and spend its money — on the permanent housing that can truly transform homeless people’s existences and improve the quality of life for everyone in Los Angeles.