What L.A. can learn from Utah

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Mol­lie Low­ery Mol­lie Low­ery is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor for Hous­ing Works and a long­time ad­vo­cate for the home­less.

Sam has been living in an en­camp­ment un­der the 101 Free­way for the last six years. He is 63, has a bad heart and drinks a lot. He came to Los An­ge­les from Utah, where he be­came home­less at age 50 af­ter los­ing his job. If he’d cho­sen to stay put, he’d prob­a­bly be bet­ter off.

Utah an­nounced re­cently that, in the last 10 years, it has suc­cess­fully housed 91% of its chron­i­cally home­less pop­u­la­tion: 1,764 out of 1,932 peo­ple. There are now fewer than 200 chron­i­cally home­less peo­ple in the en­tire state. By con­trast, L.A. County’s chron­i­cally home­less pop­u­la­tion rose from 7,475 in 2013 to 12,356 this year, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est es­ti­mate.

Although the scale of the prob­lem in Utah is ob­vi­ously much smaller than it is here, Los An­ge­les could learn from that state’s dogged im­ple­men­ta­tion of a “hous­ing first” pol­icy — which, as the name sug­gests, pri­or­i­tizes get­ting peo­ple off the streets and into per­ma­nent sup­port­ive hous­ing. Home­less in­di­vid­u­als don’t have to par­tic­i­pate in drug re­cov­ery or men­tal health treat­ment to qual­ify for a sub­si­dized apart­ment.

Hous­ing first is ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered best prac­tice in Los An­ge­les as well. Through­out the county a co­or­di­nated en­try sys­tem has been im­ple­mented to match the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple to suit­able shel­ter. And since 2011, the county has housed 7,269 chron­i­cally home­less peo­ple — a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment. The prob­lem is that the county doesn’t com­mit the hous­ing re­sources nec­es­sary to meet the need. The en­try sys­tem is clogged at the front door.

L.A. County is one of the most ex­pen­sive rental mar­kets in the United States. Our 44,359 home­less in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies com­pete for the same ac­com­mo­da­tions as the 1.5 mil­lion low-in­come house­holds that are on the brink of home­less­ness be­cause they can­not af­ford rental prices.

Even if you are one of the very for­tu­nate few who qual­ify for and re­ceive a hous­ing voucher, most rental units are still out of reach, ei­ther be­cause they’re too costly (be­yond the lim­its of the voucher) or be­cause the land­lord re­fuses to ac­cept vouch­ers.

Some treat the hous­ing short­age as if it were a fact of na­ture; oth­ers ar­gue that there is no money to build or re­ha­bil­i­tate the hous­ing we need — but that’s be­cause we waste money on ef­forts to man­age home­less­ness rather than end it.

The city of Los An­ge­les has in­creased the num­ber of anti-home­less laws on the books by 59% since 1990. There are now 23 re­stric­tions and 19 laws that crim­i­nal­ize home­less­ness in some way. Each year, the city spends $80 mil­lion en­forc­ing th­ese rules — con­tain­ing, mov­ing and jail­ing peo­ple who have no choice but to sleep, stand and eat in public.

If the city used that $80 mil­lion on hous­ing, it would al­most cer­tainly save money in the long run. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in this pa­per, “The cost of pro­vid­ing an apart­ment and so­cial work for clients in [Utah’s] Hous­ing First pro­gram is $11,000 an­nu­ally, while the av­er­age price of hos­pi­tal vis­its and jail for street denizens is nearly $17,000 a year.”

Even as L.A. pun­ishes the home­less, it does lit­tle to pre­vent home­less­ness in the first place. Too of­ten we de­fine the cause of home­less­ness as men­tal ill­ness or ad­dic­tion. Ac­tu­ally the cause is un­treated men­tal ill­ness or ad­dic­tion. Poor peo­ple in Los An­ge­les have min­i­mal ac­cess to be­hav­ioral health treat­ment or re­cov­ery ser­vices. Un­til th­ese sys­tems ef­fec­tively ad­dress their needs, the home­less pop­u­la­tion will con­tinue to grow.

Yet an­other prob­lem is the lack of sup­port for those who pass through our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem. There’s an emerg­ing na­tional move­ment to bring down incarceration rates, but there are few plans for what to do with the many peo­ple re­leased from pri­son with nowhere to go. Those who al­ready have a crim­i­nal record face im­mense dif­fi­cul­ties in ob­tain­ing hous­ing, em­ploy­ment and ba­sic benefits such as food stamps. It’s no won­der many of them end up home­less.

One out of ev­ery 226 peo­ple in L.A. County is home­less. That’s an epi­demic, not just a cri­sis. Thou­sands are living in ex­treme poverty, on our public side­walks, ex­posed ev­ery day to trauma and abuse. Utah has proved that it’s pos­si­ble to end chronic home­less­ness. Los An­ge­les can do the same, if we’re ready to re­think how we deploy our re­sources.

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