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Opinion

Editorial: Killing the messenger won’t fix L.A.'s homeless crisis

A homeless person sleeps on a bench in Los Angeles.
A homeless person sleeps on a bench in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

The news about homelessness in Los Angeles has been grim this year. Although thousands of people were housed, even more fell into homelessness than came out, so the number of people without a fixed place to stay in the county went up 12% in 2019. Meanwhile, a record number of people are dying on the streets, according to the county coroner.

There is some good news on the horizon: Thousands more bridge shelter beds and permanent supportive housing units will become available over the next few years. But the reality on the ground is brutal. There is still far, far too little housing for too many people.

So it’s not surprising that, as elected officials and others feel the pressure to change things, they are increasingly focusing their attention on the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the lead city-county agency addressing the issue.

The attention grew even more intense when the agency’s executive director, Peter Lynn, announced he was resigning — effective the end of this month — after what he himself called a “long five years.” During that time, Lynn has been the bearer of much of the bad news on homelessness, since one of the key roles of LAHSA, as the agency is called, is to run the annual countywide count of homeless people and to conduct a separate demographic survey of several thousand homeless people to gather data about their backgrounds.

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In his five years, Lynn has been hauled in front of the L.A. City Council and the county Board of Supervisors to answer to everything from why the numbers were getting worse to why the numbers took so long to be announced. He has been a convenient whipping boy for any elected official with a gripe about homeless services. A couple of years ago, a state senator had LAHSA audited, claiming that the agency was shortchanging Antelope Valley service providers when it came to dispensing federal funds. It turned out many Antelope Valley providers hadn’t been applying for funds.

The agency was created in 1993 as a joint city-county agency to provide funding for service organizations and to coordinate their efforts. In the five years that Lynn ran it, the agency swelled in size and mission, as the problem — and the funding — grew. These days, LAHSA funnels more than $400 million each year in federal, state, and local funds to service agencies and programs and oversees a homeless count that went from biennial to annual during his time here.

Lynn also oversaw the countywide implementation of the Coordinated Entry System, the portal through which every homeless person must pass to get evaluated for services and lined up for government-subsidized permanent housing. And, perhaps most influentially, Lynn and his team at LAHSA helped the city and the county in 2016 draft their landmark comprehensive homeless strategies, which were the precursors to the ballot measures in 2016 and 2017 that raised money to fight homelessness — Measures H and HHH. When the Measure H sales tax was approved by county voters to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for homeless services, Lynn advised the county on how to divvy up that spending.

Most observers praise Lynn for his knowledge and passion; he explained the link between homelessness and the housing affordability crisis and cautioned against directing resources to short-term shelters at the expense of permanent housing. But his critics have called him an inflexible manager and not enough of a visionary. And there’s no denying that homelessness has increased dramatically during his tenure.

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With Lynn leaving, this is a good time to rethink and possibly revamp LAHSA. The process by which the agency hires outside contractors can be bureaucratic and slow, according to critics. Similarly, the Coordinated Entry System can be difficult to navigate. Neither of those systems should be cumbersome; homelessness is an emergency.

In truth, Lynn never had the authority to envision or implement his own plans for getting homeless people off the streets. After all, he had numerous bosses — the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors, the mayor of Los Angeles — to answer to. But he has made a point of saying he saw his purpose at LAHSA as not just carrying out the county’s policies but reframing the questions about how to solve homelessness. The reviews on whether he did that effectively are mixed.

Now, county and city elected officials and advocates should be asking just what they want from LAHSA and how it could be made more effective. If they really wanted a central agency with the authority to improve services and build housing faster — and then to be held accountable if things don’t work out — they would need to vest great power in it, its director and the commission overseeing it, and give it power over other agencies involved in homelessness and homeless housing. But city and county officials are never going to relinquish that kind of power to LAHSA. Mayor Eric Garcetti said as much recently — even as he also said we should have the conversation about changing LAHSA.

So are there changes that could be made? There could be great advantages to having one entity that could ride herd over every aspect of solving this problem, from trouble shooting complications involving housing and shelter beds to figuring out if enough money is going into prevention programs to keep people from falling into homelessness. Should LAHSA be given more control over implementing homelessness policies (short of giving them control over other departments)? Should it be restructured in some way — or would that just amount to rearranging the deck chairs?

It’s worth a discussion. Simply hiring another director without figuring out exactly what LAHSA should do — other than take the blame when there are still homeless people on the streets — won’t solve anything.


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