What Is The Federal Government Doing To End Homelessness In LA?

A man walks past a homeless encampment beneath an overpass in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Editor's note: A delegation of Trump administration officials visited Los Angeles in September on a fact-finding mission to learn more about how state and local officials are responding to the region's homelessness crisis.


Los Angeles' homelessness crisis is costing local governments and the state of California billions of dollars. Most of the money being spent to address it comes from taxpayers who live in L.A. County.

But on the national level, L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters is sponsoring a bill that would boost federal spending on homelessness by $13 billion over the next ten years, according to the Congressional Budget office.

Waters held a field hearing last week in Exposition Park to discuss homelessness and question local officials about how best that money could be spent.

If enacted, the amount likely to trickle down to Los Angeles would be a drop in the bucket compared to what local and state officials are spending.

But it got us thinking: What is the federal government's role in addressing homelessness here in L.A.? Here's what we found out.

HOW MUCH DO THE FEDS SPEND TO CURB HOMELESSNESS?

Let's break it down. Federal spending on homelessness gets disbursed through a patchwork of programs and grants by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

The single most robust federal program that directly targets homelessness is the "Continuum of Care" (CoC) grant program administered by HUD. A Continuum of Care essentially coordinates the response to homelessness at the local level. Federal grant money to CoCs pays for things like emergency shelters, permanent supportive housing and case management.

There are four Continuum of Care bodies in Los Angeles County: Pasadena, Long Beach, Glendale and the LA CoC, which covers the rest of the county. The four CoCs got a total of about $139 million in federal grants in 2018.

In addition, HUD administers the "Emergency Solutions Grant" program for emergency shelters and related services. This year, HUD awarded providers in Los Angeles County about $7.3 million.

Though not directly aimed at helping homeless people, the largest federal program designed to help keep low-income people housed is the Housing Choice Voucher program, also known as Section 8. More about that later.

Veterans Affairs (VA)

The Department of Veterans Affairs gives grants to organizations that serve homeless veterans. The VA itself signs up homeless veterans for health and housing benefits. And then there's the "HUD-VASH" program, a collaboration between the VA and HUD to provide rental subsidies to veterans.

The VA also offers homeless veterans other services like assistance in finding employment, dental work, and home care for those who need it. It also works with veterans and their families who are at risk of losing their housing.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

The Health and Human Services department has a few small grant programs, including one that targets public and private organizations serving runaway and homeless youth. Another funds organizations that provide healthcare for the homeless. That program served more than 1 million homeless people across the country in 2018, according to government statistics.

Department of Education

Finally, the Department of Education offers some support to local school districts to address the needs of homeless students. Federal law, specifically, the McKinney-Vento Act, requires public school districts to enroll and support homeless students.

But the amount, and efficacy, of support that students get varies greatly, starting with the tracking of homeless students. Earlier this year, California lawmakers announced plans to audit the student homelessness data collected by school districts because of concerns about underreporting by some schools.

The Department of Education's spending on homelessness programs in 2019 totals just $93.5 million for the entire country.

DO THE FEDS SPEND ENOUGH?

In this year's federal budget, all the above programs totaled less than $5 billion in annual spending — an infinitesimal fraction of the total federal budget ($4.4 trillion).

Steve Berg, a policy expert at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the relative pittance spent on homelessness by the federal government is one of the reasons why so many people are on the streets.

"The government programs to deal with homelessness are not funded at nearly the level they need to be to do their jobs," Berg said.

Berg said Waters' proposed bill would be a step to remedy the shortfall.

"What that bill attempts to do is look at some of these homeless interventions and say, 'What would it take to really fund these at the scale they need to be?'"

Specifically, the bill would boost funding for the production and maintenance of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless people, boost funding for the construction of low-income housing and allocate more resources to rental subsidy programs for formerly homeless people.

Besides costs related directly to housing, the bill would add about $100 million in annual spending for homeless outreach and services. It would also make permanent the HUD Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions grant programs, which currently have to be re-authorized periodically.

But the reality is that the amount of people in need far eclipses the amount of public assistance available at all levels of government.

As mentioned above, the largest federal housing program for low-income people is the Section 8 program. For households lucky enough to get a Section 8 voucher, the federal government subsidizes their rent in public and privately owned housing.

In Los Angeles County, about 94,000 Section 8 vouchers are in circulation, according to the California Housing Partnership. But the group estimates about 757,209 households in Los Angeles County would qualify for Section 8 assistance if it were more widely available.

The results are mind-bogglingly long waitlists and a ridiculous lottery process to secure a spot on the waitlist.

The waitlist is usually closed to new applicants. The last time the Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles (HACLA) opened a lottery to get one of 20,000 spots on its Section 8 waitlist was in October 2017.

At the time, nearly 188,000 households representing about 460,000 people applied. It was the first time the waitlist had been opened in 13 years.

Nearly 90% of the households that applied for a spot on the waitlist didn't get one.

"Clearly HACLA cannot keep up with the demand without additional resources from the federal government," said Margarita Lares, HACLA's chief programs officer.

Plus, obtaining a Section 8 voucher is no guarantee of actually finding housing. Only about 47% of voucher recipients in the city of Los Angeles were successful in finding a place to live before their voucher expired. That's in part because many landlords refuse to rent to Section 8 voucher holders. Landlords who participate in Section 8 have to agree to federal property inspections and abide by rental caps. Plus, they may fear extra wear and tear on their property.

The City and County both outlawed Section 8 discrimination this year. But whether or not that will make a difference in the number of units available to voucher holders is yet to be seen.

WHAT ABOUT PUBLIC HOUSING?

Los Angeles has few publicly operated housing units compared to other large American cities. According to the California Housing Partnership, L.A. County (population 10.1 million) has just 10,806 units of government-owned housing.

In contrast, New York City (population 8.6 million), has 173,160 units of public housing. That means New York City has about 20 times as much public housing per capita as L.A. County.

"This lack of depth of public housing in Los Angeles means there are far fewer deeply affordable units, both for those who are at risk of homelessness and for those that we seek to move out of homelessness and into a housing unit," LAHSA head Peter Lynn wrote in his written testimony before the recent House committee hearing on homelessness.

Homeless advocates and experts testify before members of the U.S. House of Representatives at the California African American Museum in Exposition Park. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

THE UPSHOT: LOCAL TAX DOLLARS ARE DOING WAY MORE THAN THE FEDS

The reality is most of the money paying for homeless services and housing in Los Angeles County comes from Los Angeles County. Voter approved Measure H is raising nearly $400 million per year from a quarter-cent sales tax.

That's almost three times the federal contribution.

Last year, the state of California also contributed nearly $170 million to cities in L.A. County through its Homeless Emergency Aid Program.

That's not to say that Waters' bill to increase federal spending wouldn't help. But the amount of money it would add to address homelessness is small, particularly given the scale of homelessness in the U.S.

In any case, it would require the approval of both houses of Congress and a signature from President Donald Trump to become law.

UPDATES:

3:30 p.m. Sept. 11: This article was updated with an editor's note about the Trump administration's visit to Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at at 12:14 p.m. Aug. 19, 2019.