Op-Ed: L.A. needs a homelessness czar
When the next major earthquake strikes, we’ll have the leadership we need. A top official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will aggressively oversee the federal response to the crisis, coordinating closely with local leaders.
Why aren’t we addressing our homelessness crisis with the same degree of urgency?
Granted, pervasive homelessness is a complex and deeply nuanced problem, one that is often entwined with mental illness. Addressing it presents a more complicated challenge than rebuilding after a natural disaster.
But this doesn’t lessen the need for determined leadership. Rather, it makes such leadership imperative.
Many motels throughout L.A. could be devoted to providing housing for homeless people.
Los Angeles needs mission-driven, accountable, even impatient leadership on homelessness — leadership that is both focused and empowered to make things happen.
At the moment, the region’s leadership on homelessness is diffuse. The city of L.A. has authority over land use, the county is responsible for mental health services, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — a joint endeavor between the city and county — administers grants to nonprofits.
We need more. At the very least, the city of L.A. needs a top-level point person on homelessness to work closely with other jurisdictions and relentlessly push forward what the city has the power to control.
To be effective, this leader will need to know how to cut through red tape. He or she will need gravitas, great listening skills, and the ability to bring together people with disparate views and steer them to consensus. This person will need to be comfortable with rough-and-tumble controversy and able to maneuver through political obstacles.
For all its dedicated staff working mightily to advance the ball, City Hall has not yet designated or empowered such a leader. It should do so now, charging that person with achieving meaningful results in the short term. As we pursue the financing, location and construction of permanent supportive housing that everyone agrees is necessary, there is much to do in the meantime.
For starters, every City Council district should designate at least one location where homeless people can safely store possessions; where people relegated to living in their cars can do so safely; and where those who are desperate for a safe place to sleep can stay for the night. My office stands ready to help in any way we can, including logistics and legal issues.
Many motels throughout L.A. could be devoted to providing housing for homeless people. The Department of City Planning has drafted an ordinance to help realize this vision. This short-term solution could be enacted quickly — the infrastructure already exists — and would benefit motel owners by guaranteeing them full occupancy. The ordinance was approved by the city Planning Commission last month and will soon be heard by the City Council. Council members should approve it quickly, along with an ordinance to facilitate permanent supportive housing.
Other cities and jurisdictions, such as San Diego, are experimenting with industrial tents as “bridge housing.” These bridge housing facilities are often well equipped with staff who offer an array of services, including employment counseling and substance abuse rehabilitation. L.A. should undertake a similar program, using public and private property.
Not every homeless person will readily accept housing or services, and this presents a major challenge to outreach workers. It may take a dozen contacts with a person before she is willing to trust a worker and consider a dramatic life change. When that moment comes, it’s imperative to seize it, immediately offering a bed, transportation and other services. Outreach workers need to be equipped with hand-held devices containing real-time data about available services and resources.
My office conducts clinics throughout L.A. County to help homeless people erase outstanding fines, citations and warrants that impede them from getting a job or a place to live. We’ve received a grant to send teams of substance abuse and health professionals out to intervene with homeless people before they reach the justice system. We continue to fight the dumping of homeless patients, and we bring lawsuits against apartment owners who allegedly replace affordable housing with short-term rentals.
With the right leadership, L.A. could help identify best practices to implement on the vast scale that we require.
Angelenos stepped up when they voted to pass Measures HHH and H, taxing themselves to provide millions for homeless housing and services. Voters deserve effective leadership that doesn’t let up until tangible signs of progress are as prevalent as the encampments across our city.
Mike Feuer is the Los Angeles city attorney.
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