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Housing and Homelessness

LA County Moves Forward With Plan To Create A New Homelessness Department

A row of three makeshift shelters in Venice, the first and third with blue tarps hanging down their sides and the middle one with a mostly white and black piece of fabric with red lettering spray painted on it. Cardboard boxes and other debris are on the ground outside the shelters.
A group of makeshift shelters in Venice.
(Chava Sanchez
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Following a closely divided vote at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Los Angeles County will move forward with plans to create a new leadership position tasked with addressing the region’s spiraling homelessness crisis.

Supervisors who supported the creation of a new county “entity” — possibly a new department of homeless services — said centralizing authority will create accountability and help speed up efforts to house those living in shelters, on the streets and in vehicles.

“There is no question in my mind that we need a new county entity specifically charged with tackling homelessness,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who supported the plan along with Supervisors Hilda Solis and Janice Hahn.

“This isn’t about creating a new lumbering bureaucracy,” Barger said. “It’s about creating a nimble entity that will be directly accountable to this board.”

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Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell voted against the plan, saying the cost of creating this entity remains unclear. They doubted that shifting responsibilities away from organizations like the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) toward a hypothetical new department would directly help Angelenos currently experiencing homelessness.

Kuehl compared the plan to shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“When you’re confronted with a hemorrhaging wound, you don’t say, let’s reconstitute our hospital board of directors, then restructure the way we send the ambulance out, then deploy our paramedics differently, and if you bleed out while we’re trying some of this stuff, sorry,” she said.

The recommendation for a new homelessness authority comes from the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness, established in July 2021.

The commission also recommended stripping homeless outreach responsibilities from LAHSA staff, dedicating new streams of funding for cities and setting up better data sharing infrastructure between local governments and service providers.

LAHSA has been criticized for not doing enough to combat homelessness, although some have said its status as an agency jointly run by the city and county has left it hamstrung.

A former head of LAHSA said the county’s plans fell short of addressing major obstacles that have long stood in the way of progress on homelessness. Michael Arnold, who served six years as executive director of LAHSA until retiring in 2014, cited longstanding divisions between L.A.’s city and county governments.

When you’re confronted with a hemorrhaging wound, you don’t say, let’s reconstitute our hospital board of directors, then restructure the way we send the ambulance out, then deploy our paramedics differently, and if you bleed out while we’re trying some of this stuff, sorry.
— L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl

“If I were to wave a magic wand, I would say let's create an entity where the mayor and city council and the Board of Supervisors sit directly on a governing council and make decisions,” said Arnold, who is currently CEO of The Midnight Mission.

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“Until they have a centralized place and a centralized commitment on funding … I think we're just going to see a lot more dysfunction and a lot more busywork making it look like we're trying to solve a problem, where the reality is we're just moving the pieces around,” he said.

Heidi Marston, who announced last week that she will resign as LAHSA’s executive director on May 27, said some ideas are well intentioned, such as the effort to improve data sharing. But she said big questions remain over how much funding and authority this new entity would have.

“If you're going to put an entity in charge, it needs to have the authority to direct other county departments on how to spend their resources,” Marston said. “It would mean the Board of Supervisors giving up some of their authority to whatever this new entity is. Whether or not they're willing to do that is a big question that needs to be answered.”

Marston said ultimately, the plan does little to address the root causes of homelessness she cited in her resignation letter: low wages, the high cost of living, systemic racism and unequal access to healthcare, education and housing.

“We do have a tendency, especially in L.A., to just move the deck chairs around but not actually solve the root cause of the problem,” she said.

The timeline for creating the new county homelessness entity remains unclear. Tuesday’s vote instructs county staff and the Blue Ribbon Commission to provide quarterly updates on plans for standing up the new department.

Meanwhile, L.A.’s homelessness crisis has grown increasingly deadly. The County Department of Public Health recently reported a 56% increase in deaths among those experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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