For homeless people to rebuild their lives, they need permanent housing. But that's just one of the building blocks to a new, functional life. Homeless people need services to help them leave behind the isolation of life on the streets, get housed and stay housed, and those services are as varied as the reasons they tumbled into homelessness. Someone suffering from psychosis or depression needs mental health care. Someone with a drug addiction needs substance abuse treatment. Someone who's been laid off and can't pay the rent needs a short-term rental subsidy and help getting a new job.
Measure H on the Los Angeles County ballot would raise the sales tax a quarter of a cent and generate about $355 million annually for that essential array of services. Funds from the measure can be spent only on homelessness services — including prevention — and the tax expires in 10 years. To help homeless people stay housed and off the streets, vote for Measure H.
This initiative does not duplicate Proposition HHH, the bond measure that city voters overwhelmingly approved last November to supply more housing for the homeless. Instead, it complements HHH by paying for the services to be provided in the city's new supportive housing units for the chronically homeless. If housing is the hardware, services are the software that make it run.
Just as the city's measure was a commitment to provide housing on the scale necessary to significantly reduce homelessness, so is Measure H a commitment from the county to provide services on a scale that could have a similar impact. County officials estimate that 45,000 families and individuals could be brought out of homelessness over five years if H passes. While the 2016 three-night count of homeless people showed nearly 47,000 homeless residents in L.A. County, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority estimates that 157,000 people experience some period of homelessness during the year. Some resolve their problems without help. Many do not.
The county now has a smart comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness, which it has already begun to implement, mostly with $100 million in one-time funding that the county won't be able to conjure again. The homeless services authority estimates the county needs $450 million annually to accomplish the goals in its homelessness plan. Measure H, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass, would provide the bulk of that amount, enabling the county to dramatically ramp up services and help more homeless people. Such an effort would begin to change the landscape — literally — of our cities, where it has become the norm to find homeless people in tents under overpasses, holed up in campers on the street, pushing shopping carts full of belongings down a sidewalk, or just sitting listlessly in a park.
For example, money would go toward increasing the number of outreach teams of social workers, health professionals and others who fan out across the county to make contact with homeless people, get them connected with counselors, help them get financial benefits and finally get them housed. It would also help expand the county's mental health, substance abuse and counseling services.
A chunk of the funding would go toward housing subsidies for people with an acute but short-term need for help. These are the people — many with families — for whom rent subsidies and counseling can mean the difference between a brief period on the streets and a debilitating descent into long-term homelessness. Some of the H money would also go to homelessness prevention, which would allow many service providers, for the first time, to help people on the verge of homelessness avoid it.
The county will never solve its homelessness problem unless it stops more people from becoming homeless in the first place. In the meantime, though, it has to address the burgeoning population of the already homeless, which will only grow unless the country steps up its efforts dramatically. Doing so requires more money, and the options for raising it are few; Proposition 13 prohibits a straightforward increase in property taxes, and the county already hiked its parcel tax to fund parks and recreation.
Measure H, which would raise the sales tax in most parts of the county, is a regrettably regressive way to generate money. But the tax is small — on a $100 purchase, it would add 25 cents. And there is no sales tax on food or prescription drugs.
There are no easy or fast fixes for homelessness. If there were, we would not have 47,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. We cannot shoo homeless people off our streets or out of their parked cars and off to some netherworld. But providing people the help they need to get and stay housed depends on Measure H.