LA's Current Homeless Outreach Strategy Is Misguided, Says City Controller

San Pedro Street in Skid Row, Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

The L.A. City Controller's office released an audit Wednesday that questions the effectiveness homeless outreach programs by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) in the City of Los Angeles. The audit says the current strategy is misguided, and has an underwhelming track record when it comes to moving people from the street into permanent housing.

Not everybody agrees, though. L.A. County Supervisor Shelia Kuehl dismissed the report as a "partial and incomplete picture" since it focuses on a single contract between LAHSA and the City of Los Angeles. That contract, according to LAHSA's Chief Program Officer Heidi Marston, represents about 6% of all homeless outreach performed in L.A. County.

Nevertheless, the City Controller's conclusions are still sobering, and offer a window into the enormous challenges and barriers facing the quest to house Los Angeles' homeless.

Consider the City-LAHSA contract-set goal of moving 10% of people who received case assessments by LAHSA outreach workers into permanent housing 2017-18 fiscal year. The controller's audit found just 4% of those assessed were placed into permanent housing.

Where the contract outlines a goal of moving 20% of people who received case assessments into temporary shelters or "bridge housing," the actual achievement rate was 15%.

NO PLACES TO PUT PEOPLE

LAHSA doesn't build shelters or housing. It's reliant on third parties, like the City of Los Angeles, to make such living arrangements available.

"One of the major problems is that you need a place to send people," said L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin. "Even if people are willing to accept help, if you don't have [any place] to send them, then that is a huge shortcoming on the part of the city."

The job of case and outreach workers for homeless people includes signing them up for government services that subsidize their rent in a public or private housing unit. These services typically target a limited subgroup of the overall homeless population, like veterans or families with children, with the most resources. At the same time, there's very little help available for the so-called "single-adult" group, which makes up the vast majority of the homeless population.

BE PROACTIVE, NOT REACTIVE

Galperin's audit pointed out that 67% of the outreach happening under this particular contract is related to L.A. City's encampment cleanup process. The report found that the outreach workers who accompany city clean-up teams can often duplicate the work of outreach workers who work for other homeless service organizations.

That these particular outreach workers accompany the police and sanitation bureau-led clean-up teams may also help explain the middling results, particularly given the longstanding civil rights complaints about how the city cleans up homeless encampments.

"When the garbage truck is arriving is not necessarily the best moment to do outreach," said Galperin. "it's also very traumatic to the people being asked to leave at that moment. If you really want to capture folks at a moment when you can have a real conversation and a real difference, that may not be the best time."

Galperin prescribed the City and LAHSA work together to ensure they conduct what he called "proactive outreach" instead of "reactive outreach."

The outreach performed under this particular contract is reactive, in the sense that it's mostly for people who live in encampments that the City of Los Angeles wants to clean up. Those clean-ups, or "sweeps," as they're often called, are typically arranged in response to complaints from the public submitted through the City's 311 system.

By contrast, proactive outreach means consistently targeting a few homeless people at a time for services.

SO NOW WHAT?

At a press conference Wednesday, Galperin was clear that the status quo is effectively a failure. He outlined a view that outreach workers should help people with basic sanitary needs while building trust, instead of following around city garbage trucks tasked with cleaning up encampments.

"How do we create more safe parking sites? How do we create, even, safe tenting areas?" he asked. "[There are] a whole variety of different options that are very imperfect, but would be better than the current state of affairs."