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The Time for Action On the Homeless Crisis Is Now

Now is the time to commit resources that match the magnitude of the problem and make a bold, concerted effort to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.
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Los Angeles County has reached a critical moment when political will, public support and resources are all within reach to finally put an end to the spiraling epidemic of mass homelessness.

Just a couple months after the Board of Supervisors approved a historic and comprehensive plan to address the crisis, a new L.A.County sponsored poll shows that voters would overwhelmingly approve a ballot initiative this fall to combat homelessness -- even if it means taking money out of their own pockets to pay for it.

According to the survey, 68 percent of likely voters would support a sales tax increase to fund programs for the homeless. An even larger number, 76 percent, would back a tax increase on incomes exceeding $1 million.

Homelessness is the defining civic issue in the County of Los Angeles, and we need to confront it. We are facing a moral crisis. And a moral crisis demands a moral solution.

In 2015, Los Angeles County alone accounted for 8 percent of the homeless population throughout the United States -- 44,359 on any given night. Many live far beyond the boundaries of Skid Row, sleeping on sidewalks and park benches, under bridges, in cars and abandoned buildings.

With the upcoming release of the 2016 Homeless Count, the situation will seem even bleaker. It is expected to confirm what most residents are already seeing with their own eyes in their own neighborhoods: that more people than ever are living on the streets, often in tents.

The good news is that we know what works and right now, we are seeing positive results from those efforts. One of the County's programs, Housing for Health, has already taken 1,400 people off the streets and placed them into permanent supportive housing. Another 2,500 will join them by the summer of 2017. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) -- a joint County and City agency -- has housed 1,500 families in just over the last year and a half.

The Homeless Initiative plan approved by the Board in February should have an even greater impact. Its sweeping strategies are intended, not only to house the homeless, but to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. It also includes increasing affordable and subsidized housing, providing supportive services and raising incomes. The plan calls for unprecedented collaboration among County and City agencies, as well as businesses, faith-based institutions and community organizations.

The City of Los Angeles is an important ally and partner in the fight to tackle homelessness. However, if the Homeless Initiative is to be successful, it will require the full support of all 88 cities in the County-- nothing less.

Academia can also play a pivotal role in searching for ways to best address homelessness. The University of Southern California just launched an initiative to corral the experience and knowledge on its campus and within the community to provide tangible solutions within four years.

It is clear that focused and careful spending of taxpayer dollars to combat homelessness does work when coupled with clear requirements on outcomes and accountability.

The problem is scale. LAHSA estimates the cost of meeting the needs of the homeless is about $450 million each year, not counting construction. The Board has set aside $100 million -- a good start, but not nearly enough.

The crisis already exacts a steep price on taxpayers, in terms of law enforcement and social services. Providing housing for the homeless enables taxpayer dollars to be spent more effectively.

In the past, voters have stepped up to approve ballot measures to pay for community essentials. Recent polling by the County indicates that voters now rank homelessness as their second-highest concern behind jobs and the economy. A survey by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that 6 in 10 County residents consider the lack of affordable housing for low-income families a very serious problem, and that many County residents are worried about going hungry or becoming homeless themselves.

Now is the time to commit resources that match the magnitude of the problem, and make a bold, concerted effort to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.