The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has reported that there are nearly 45,000 men, women and children who do not have a place to call home. Counting the homeless is not easy task (6,000 volunteers) and when you have five City and five LA County LAHSA commissioners approving everything even the small things become political from LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which provides most of the $100+ million each year.
The city-county agency LAHSA coordinates housing and services for the homeless and distributes millions in federal, state, county and city funds annually to 200 nonprofits and programs. HUD makes The Greater LA Homeless Count is mandatory, but the federal government refused to accept the “hidden homeless” count, a phone survey about homeless sleeping in backyards, garages, and other make-shift tents. So more volunteers are recruited to count in 1,500+ of the county’s 1,887 census tracts.
LAHSA’s political firestorm actually began in 2013 when Mayor Garcetti announced he would be the first to sign up for theWhite House initiative to end Veteran Homelessness by 2015. It was already down by 26 percent because the VA spent so much money on the campaign, but they still have their work cut out for them. LA had the highest veteran homeless population in the country at 4,343. And today (Aug. 31, 2015) Mayor Garcetti has told the editorial board of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (LANG) it’s going to take a half year longer to end Veteran homelessness.
Roll forward to this year, where the political football of counting the homeless heated up. The 2015 Greater LA Homeless Count, which showed an increase of 12 percent almost didn’t happen. The County withheld major funds so the City of LA did the same in 2014, which forced the then executive director Michael Arnold to freeze all LAHSA department budgets. Luckily, before the firestorm erupted, $750,000 tax-payer dollars had already been approved for the 2015 Count, including an expensive contract with a South Carolina University consultant. In 2014, the V.A. offered to pay for a homeless count, but management said the two-month window was too short and LAHSA turned it down.
In the same year, Mayor Garcetti told the Los Angeles Daily News, he wanted to “see a change in management at LAHSA so it would function better,” but never specified if that meant the executive director or the 10 City-County, LAHSA Commissioners overseeing the programs and funding. And when Los Angeles Daily News Reporter Dakota Smith asked about the change, his office had no further comment.
A few months later, Executive Director, Arnold announced his retirement after nine years of rebuilding and turning LAHSA into a respectable government agency. Then LAHSA Commissioners announced a national search for his replacement, which was later yanked. Mayor Garcetti sent a message to the commissioners that he wanted LA Housing Authority Sec. 8 Director, Peter Lynn to be the new executive director before the search had started.
Just moments before the LAHSA commissioners went into executive session to vote on a new executive director, Commissioner Booker Pearson said at the public monthly meeting that he, “wanted to go on public record stating he felt the selection process was not fair and he did not have enough time to review the candidates background.” Then, the Commission learned they did not have enough votes, either, so more votes from absent commissioners were done via phone behind closed doors. Then on Sept. 2, 2014, LAHSA Commission Chair Kerry Morrison announced they have selected Peter Lynn for the $190 thousand job. Then the 2013 homeless count number was revised to 39,000 shortly after Lynn came onboard in Dec. 2014.
Commissioner Larry Adamson, who heads the Midnight Mission in Downtown LA said, “I tried to talk him (Michael Arnold) out of retiring” and noted that Arnold made most progress in ending homelessness than any other leader. “You came to our agency in total turmoil nine years ago and turn things around at Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority,” said past chair Adamson at a monthly Commission meeting.
Then a management shakeup at LAHSA started with employees getting “fired at will” and some long time LAHSA commissioners like Ramona Ripston, former ACLA executive director, who recently won a national settlement forcing the V.A. to house more homeless veterans, and United Way LA President & CEO Elise Buik were both replaced this year. The first commissioner replacement, Shane M. Goldsmith, came from Lynn’s former shop HACLA.
To draw more national media and political attention to the 2015 Homeless Count in late January, LA Mayor Garcetti invited the HUD and VA secretaries to the LA Mission on the first night of three evenings to help count the homeless. Ironically, it happened on the same day the VA announced the settlement on homelessness.
In January 2015, LA Mayor announced he’s half way there to ending VA homelessness by the end of the year. Then in June the mayor backs off a little on the goal. Recently, Mayor Garcetti announced at a news conference that he was declaring war on homelessness in L.A., but when asked how he would implement a plan, he said he did not have a plan do it, yet.
In 2014, LAHSA had estimated 8,000 people were sleeping in their cars in LA County and 5,000 in the City of LA. And one manager, who wished to remain anonymous said, “there’s probably an estimated 20,000 hidden homeless that were not counted this year.” The City and the County teamed up in 2014 his year to clean the streets of downtown LA’s Skid Row (Operation Healthy Streets), where there are estimated 3,500 homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. Now, if LAHSA can get a handle on homeless encampments that are spread through L.A. mostly near the LA River and under freeway overpasses more people can obtain permanent supportive housing.
Mayor Eric Garcetti raised the stakes by pledging to get the city’s 3,400 homeless veterans off the streets by the end of the year. Maybe Garcetti should visit Buenos Aires, Argentina, a city that’s five times the size of L.A. (15.5 million people), but with only an estimated 15,000 homeless. 4,500 are children and 2,000 elderly according to the government’s report.
(Disclaimer: George McQuade worked for LAHSA Oct. 2013 – Feb. 2015 as Communications Director, and volunteered three nights for the 2015 Greater LA Homeless Count.)