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Housing and Homelessness

Biden's Plan To Reduce Homelessness Nationwide Name-Checks LA — Where It's Getting Mixed Reviews

Tents line a city street with dowtown skycrapers in the background.
A homeless encampment lines a street in Skid Row last week as L.A. Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on her first day in office.
(Mario Tama
/
Getty Images)
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President Biden’s pledge to reduce the number of people living on the nation’s streets 25% by 2025 was welcome news to experts on the homelessness crisis in L.A. — with a major caveat. While the spotlight on homelessness is welcome, some say the proposal devotes woefully too little new resources to the problem.

“I am thankful they are putting this issue front and center,” said USC Professor Gary Painter, who directs the university’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute. “The federal government hasn’t had a clear voice and a clear direction” in decades, he added, even as the number of people living on the streets has grown.

So in that sense, the plan has “rhetorical importance.”

The Current Crisis

Estimates put the number of people unhoused in the U.S. on any given night at about 582,000. That’s according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly 12% of them live in L.A. County.

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A big part of the plan focuses on preventing people from falling into homelessness in the first place, a huge problem in L.A. where rents are exorbitant and wages for many workers are low.

People with federal housing vouchers as well as landlords would face less red tape under the plan.

“In our region, it is the bureaucracy and red tape that’s often preventing us from getting people into housing and certainly getting people into housing quickly,” said Sarah Dusseault, co-chair of the L.A. County Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness. Even if someone gets a voucher — and only 20% of people who need one do — it can take six to nine months to obtain housing, she said.

“It should take two or three weeks.”

A Focus On Vouchers

To that end, the plan calls for the federal government to examine how well its voucher program is working in L.A. and other cities and to make adjustments. “I hope with that technical team coming in they can learn the challenges of individual regions,” Dusseault said.

Painter noted that the plan fails to propose any new significant amount of resources to combat homelessness, like increasing the allocation of new housing choice vouchers. He said other priorities for the Biden Administration combined with the new Republican-controlled House of Representatives likely made that difficult.

“They really wanted to focus on what they could do,” he said.

“I’m glad to see that the federal government is making more explicit attention to our homelessness crisis,” said Sarah B. Hunter, director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles.

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About The West L.A. VA

But she was disappointed that Biden’s plan did not invest more resources into the problem. Just one example: the plan doesn’t include turning the West L.A. Veterans Administration property into permanent supportive housing — something that has been in the works for a long time. The promise of housing was included in the settlement of a 2011 lawsuit brought by a group of veterans represented by civil rights lawyers.

“We have this huge beautiful land devoted to veterans,” Hunter said, and the plan said nothing about it. Nearly 4,000 homeless people in L.A. are veterans, she said. “There’s just been no action behind that.”

Is The Plan Realistic?

Hunter praised the plan for focusing on the principles of housing first and harm reduction when it comes to the significant problem of substance abuse among unhoused people. But she wondered about whether the 2025 goal of reducing homelessness by 25% was realistic.

There’s nothing earth shatteringly new in this. They are relying on programs that already exist.
— Sarah B. Hunter, director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles.

“There’s nothing earth shatteringly new in this,” Hunter said. “They are relying on programs that already exist.”

Painter sounded a more optimistic note. He said the focus on eliminating regulations and streamlining efforts will help local governments in L.A. and elsewhere.

“It can allow some political cover to local governments and state governments to try new things, to reallocate resources,” he said.

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