Paul stood at the 101 Freeway off-ramp, holding a cardboard sign that read, "Spare Change?" He was a veteran in our armed services who lived on our streets for ten years. Last year, Paul was one of 44,000 people homeless in Los Angeles County.
With homelessness increasing by 12 percent in the past two years, and encampments by 85 percent, many people are now demanding solutions for people like Paul, and the thousands of others living in tents, cars, and sleeping bags all across the Southland.
The temptation, however, to pump millions of dollars into quick solutions--like shelters--is great, especially when El Nino storms are looming. We do not want any more people who are homeless, like Barbara Brown, dying on our streets. But a long-term plan is certainly needed as well.
The temptation to propose a laundry list of solutions to homelessness--shelters, employment, housing, healthcare--is also great. But Los Angeles created such lists during past homelessness crises and the issue still persists.
In 2003, our community created the "Bring LA Home" ten-year plan to end homelessness. (I was part of the panel that worked on it.) It failed because it was a list of answers but no committed resources to implement the solutions. In 2010, business and civic leaders released the "Home For Good" plan that helped the region nearly end veteran homelessness. But the resources to end chronic, family and adult homelessness are still not enough.
This February, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will be voting on a new homeless plan. The City of Los Angeles is also proposing a similar plan that syncs with the County.
For those of us who for decades have donated money, served holiday dinners, and worked on the front lines of homelessness--I have been the leader of PATH for 20 years--we ask the simple question: Is this new flurry of political activity simply a Déjà vu moment? Another public relations stint geared toward smothering the community's gripes over homelessness?
After decades of watching political leaders propose either short-term or unfunded solutions to homelessness, I am actually quite hopeful this time.
For the first time, significant resources are being proposed. The State Senate is proposing $2 billion for housing people who are homeless with mental illness. The City of Los Angeles has already set aside $15 million, and is considering a total of $100 million.
And, the County of Los Angeles, whose mission is to provide services for people in need, has committed $149 million toward implementing their new homeless plan. This is on top of a $300 million commitment made last October to build affordable housing and its existing commitments, including Housing for Health and the Mental Health Services Act Housing programs.
Some people might consider these sums of money as pocket change, given how costly it would be to house our homeless population, and given the County's and City's billion dollar annual budgets.
These financial commitments, however, should be considered as down payments toward ending homelessness. In reality, we desperately need these public jurisdictions to make an ongoing, year-to-year, financial commitment.
But money, alone, will not resolve our region's struggle to house our homeless neighbors, and to prevent people in the future from becoming homeless.
This recent plan is far more than just a check-writing exercise. This time, this plan is rooted in changing the system of how we address homelessness.
For the first time, the County and City of Los Angeles are coordinating their plans and efforts, along with enlisting dozens of other cities within the county.
Unlike previous plans, there is an emphasis on identifying the most vulnerable people on the streets and then prioritizing them for permanent housing, a Coordinated Entry System. This is much different than previous ways of housing people based on a luck-of-the draw, first-come first-serve system where the most functional people who can out-maneuver a bureaucratic system got housed first.
This time, the County is investing $36 million into helping people access permanent apartments through move-in assistance. We all know how expensive the upfront cost is to get an apartment. This "rapid re-housing" has a track record of success. The agency I run housed 3,500 people through such a program.
Although this plan has many more system-changing proposals, one of the most dramatic changes is in the way the County will prioritize people who have been on the streets for a long time (and with a disabling condition) for turn-over units in its Housing Choice Voucher program.
If every Public Housing Authority agency in the County committed 50% of their turn-over units toward chronic homeless individuals, 10,000 people could be housed within five years--without building one new unit!
I see this new homeless plan as a hopeful approach for dealing with an entrenched, decades-old dilemma. Changing the system means changing people's lives.
Just ask Paul. Because of innovative programs like the ones proposed in this homeless plan, two weeks ago he moved into his own apartment.