Reform Of LA's Homelessness Agency Seems Likely

LAHSA's headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

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This week, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal to potentially rethink the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). The agency oversees a significant portion of Los Angeles' homeless service system. And for people looking to blame someone — or something — for the rise in homelessness, LAHSA is an obvious target.

LAHSA is what's called a "Joint Powers Authority" between the city and county of Los Angeles. A JPA is basically where two different government bodies join to execute a common task that crosses jurisdictional lines — in this case addressing homelessness across L.A. County.

It was formed in the fallout from extensive litigation in the late 1980s and early '90s, where the city and county argued at length over who was actually responsible for aiding people living on the street. LAHSA is one of the results, and was intended to become the agency responsible for responding to homelessness across L.A. County.

But even from the beginning, LAHSA was criticized by some for being a third party the city and county could rely on to evade responsibility on the issue.

Today, nearly 27 years after LAHSA was first formed, elected officials in the city of Los Angeles, and the County Board of Supervisors, have made clear in several legislative motions this year that they don't think LAHSA does its job well enough, and hint that reform may be needed.

Precisely how — or even if — LAHSA may be restructured is unclear. But read on for more details about the government agency tasked with the sisyphean job of ending Los Angeles' crisis of homelessness.


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WHAT DOES LAHSA ACTUALLY DO?

LAHSA's main responsibility is knowing who all the people experiencing homelessness are, and connecting them to social services that could get them off the street. This is done through what's called the "coordinated entry system," which is the central case management system in Los Angeles County. The CES is part of a federally mandated structure for how local governments respond to homelessness, intended to help the feds keep track how their funds are used for homelessness, and what the results are.

It works like this: social workers and many others are tasked with assessing each individual person in a highly detailed evaluation that is dozens of pages long, and then entering that information into a case file stored in the CES. The CES is supposed to help connect individuals to social service programs they may qualify for, based on their individual needs. It's also intended to help prioritize who gets access to housing first, based on how vulnerable that person is on the streets.

Besides managing the CES, LAHSA is also the lead agency for the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, which is the chief receiving body for federal money aimed at ending homelessness. As such, LAHSA is responsible for a significant amount of contract administration resulting from the distribution of public money to nonprofit social services agencies that also work with people who are homeless.

LAHSA administers the annual homeless count, and has several smaller offices with specialized functions as well.

In total, it coordinates and manages approximately $400 million annually in federal, state, county and city funds.

HOW DOES LAHSA'S GOVERNANCE WORK TODAY?

The key authority rests with the 10-person LAHSA commission. Five of the commissioners are appointed by the Mayor of Los Angeles. The other five are individually appointed by each member of the County Board of Supervisors.

However, besides the main commission, LAHSA also has several other advisory boards that, in theory, advise the commission on policy. There's an advisory board of people with have experienced homelessness, a regional homeless advisory council, a continuum of care board, a coordinated entry system council, and so on.

In addition to its own advisory boards, LAHSA is beholden to requests from both Los Angeles city and county too.

And to understand the quagmire that is L.A.'s homelessness policy, besides LAHSA, many cities and L.A. County also have their own homelessness policy offices.

The effect is that it's basically impossible to understand who is in charge of managing homelessness in the region, which practically means that no one individual agency is.

That frustration is what's behind these calls for reform: to make responsibilities clearer, and ensure a specific person — or specific people — become accountable for the crisis.

HAVEN'T CALLS TO REFORM LAHSA'S GOVERNANCE BEEN FLOATING AROUND FOR A WHILE?

Yes, and actually the call this week by County supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Janice Hahn was at least the third such call made in 2020.

In January, then incoming City Council President Nury Martinez asserted reform was needed. She introduced a legislative motion later passed by the full council in March.

And in February, supervisors Kathryn Barger and Hilda Solis asked for county staff to conduct a review of LAHSA's governance structure and provide recommendations that could make it more effective.

Meanwhile the LAHSA commission itself has also been exploring the agency's governance for several months. Commissioners have retained a consultant to examine how LAHSA works internally, and determine how to prioritize who the commissioners should listen to first. (For example, should commissioners listen more to people with lived experience, or should they listen more to social service agencies that provide services?)

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

Most of the requested reports and recommendations are supposed to be completed in the latter half of 2020 or early 2021. Once complete, they'll be presented to the LAHSA commission, as well as the L.A. City Council and Board of Supervisors.

It's key to remember, however, that many of the key factors affecting the performance of the homeless services system are outside LAHSA's control.

The biggest factor is the dearth of affordable housing in Southern California. LAHSA cannot compel any individual city (or the county for that matter) to build more housing at any income level, which is one of the key reasons the region's homelessness crisis continues to get worse.

Nor, for that matter, does LAHSA have any power over tenant protections, and is limited to expressing support for proposed legislation.

Ultimately, LAHSA can provide elected officials in cities and the county with policy guidance, but no elected official is bound to actually adopt a policy that LAHSA thinks is a good idea.