Confused About What The LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Does? We Have Answers.
When talking about the homelessness crisis, you’ll often hear the word LAHSA (LAH-sah) thrown around by the mayor, city council members and the county board of supervisors.
LAHSA, short for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, is the regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for unhoused people in Los Angeles County. LAHSA administers services and policies to shape best practices in getting people experiencing homelessness into housing. There have been recent calls from elected officials to overhaul or completely eliminate LAHSA, so we’re breaking down what the agency does and who it serves.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Is A Continuum Of Care?
LAHSA is the lead agency in the Los Angeles Continuum of Care — a consolidated system meant to guide and track people experiencing homelessness through housing and services. Services include outreach, intake and assessment, emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent or supportive housing.
Because Los Angeles is the largest urban county in the nation — with 88 separate cities, complex boundaries and unincorporated areas — LAHSA is responsible for helping to prioritize and coordinate homeless outreach efforts among various agencies, community leaders and government agencies. The cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena are not part of the Los Angeles CoC because they opted to have their own. But data from those cities has to be shared with L.A.
To streamline the funding process and encourage local collaboration, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development requires communities to submit a single application in order to access grant money. LAHSA is the lead agency that does all the coordinating.
Who Put LAHSA In Charge?
California state law requires that the county of Los Angeles distribute money for the welfare program known as General Relief. But according to a report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, it was difficult to enroll in the program because the county required identification and a residential address — something many unhoused people lack. In the 1980s, the then-conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors decided they didn’t want to team up with the city of Los Angeles to ease restrictions for access to General Relief, according to the report.
The result was a series of lawsuits that accused the county of establishing quotas to deny poor people assistance, and countersuits that alleged easing restrictions would lead to welfare fraud, according to the report.
It’s important to note here that by the 1980s, the unhoused population in Los Angeles was majority Black and Latino, a complete shift from what had mostly been older, single, white men. (Read our explainer on the origins of Skid Row and learn more details about how the shift happened.)
After several years of battling in court, the case settled in 1991 with the county agreeing to increase General Relief and ease some of its restrictions. Not so fun fact: people who applied for General Relief used to get $341 a month, but a 1996 ruling allowed Los Angeles to reduce the amount to $221 to save money due to budget shortfalls from a recession — that’s the amount of relief today despite decades of inflation.
Another agreement that came from the lawsuit was that in 1993, the city and county created a Joint Powers Authority to operate homeless programs. That authority is now called LAHSA and its executive director is Heidi Marston, who has served in the role since June 2020. Marston had been named acting executive director in December 2019, less than a year after she started as chief program officer.
LAHSA is governed by a board of commissioners selected by the County Board of Supervisors, and L.A.’s mayor and city council.
Where Does LAHSA Get Its Funding
When LAHSA was created in 1993, the city and county were each supposed to fund the agency with roughly $2.5 million a year to pay for homeless programs and services, according to the Luskin report.
For fiscal year 2022, LAHSA coordinates and manages $649.1 million annually in federal, state, county and city funds. Nearly $326.1 million of LAHSA’s funding comes from the county of Los Angeles, which includes, in part, funding from Measure H, the sales tax approved by voters in 2017 to fund services for homelessness. The measure raises $335 million annually for 10 years to, in part, coordinate outreach services such as street engagement and subsidizing housing costs.
The city of Los Angeles contributes roughly $230.1 million annually, California contributes nearly $54 million and the federal government contributes $37.2 million. Only 0.3% of LAHSA’s budget will come from philanthropy.
Forty-nine percent of the budget is one-time funding that LAHSA gets to use, but according to Marston, there is no guarantee it will get the money again next year.
Who are LAHSA’s 'Bosses'?
LAHSA takes direction from lots of people since the Los Angeles region lacks centralized governance.
The Homeless Count
LAHSA is probably most known for carrying out a count of people experiencing homelessness, which it has done annually since 2005. The counts are a snapshot of homelessness on one day and do not include the cities of Glendale, Pasadena or Long Beach. Volunteers are used to count both the unsheltered and sheltered homeless populations. The 2021 unsheltered count was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is scheduled to resume in 2022.
According to LAHSA, the count documents how many people are currently experiencing homelessness, where they are staying and their characteristics.
LAHSA’s Homeless Rehousing Outreach Teams
LAHSA has more than 850 people in 240 teams across government agencies, along with dozens of nonprofits to do outreach. The county’s Department of Health Services Housing for Health unit uses Measure H to fund 70 multi-disciplinary teams specializing in mental health, substance abuse and emergency response, while the Department of Mental Health’s HOME teams work with people who are disabled.
There are 93 Homeless Engagement Teams (HET) across Los Angeles County with diverse backgrounds, many who have personal experience with homelessness. According to LAHSA, 35% of its staff is Black and 49% is Latino.
Is LAHSA The Best Way Forward?
Nury Martinez, President, Los Angeles City Council; Councilmember, District 6
Martinez is not shy about her scrutiny of LAHSA. She became city council president in January 2020, and one of her first acts was to introduce a motion questioning whether LAHSA was still an effective model for addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Martinez said at a city council meeting that it was time to have a brutal conversation about the structure of LAHSA and whether or not the city, which has more than 61% of the unhoused population, is getting its fair share of services.
In September 2020, Martinez and her council colleagues refused to hand over $67 million in federal funds to LAHSA, saying they wanted to see progress reports before authorizing more funding.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles City Councilmember, District 10
Ridley-Thomas was on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors before returning to the city council, where he served from 1991-2002. As a supervisor, he co-authored a motion in 2020 to review LAHSA’s financial operations to assess how it was spending Measure H funds.
Since then, the chief executive officer of L.A. County and its auditor-controller have submitted reports that explore new governance models to see how well the current system is performing. Those reports have also been reviewed by the city council's Homelessness and Poverty Committee, which Ridley-Thomas currently chairs.
Paul Koretz, Los Angeles City Councilmember, Fifth District
Koretz introduced a motion in June, 2021 to prepare for the city’s possible withdrawal from LAHSA and said it’s part of the council’s larger discussion on how to improve its response to the homelessness crisis.
“It calls for a review of the current state of the agency that will help us determine whether it needs to be tweaked or replaced as a key part of our arsenal for combating a situation that everyone agrees has become worse over the years,” Koretz said.
Kathryn Barger, Los Angeles County Supervisor, Fifth District
Barger and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in July, 2021 voted to establish the Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness to address the crisis, saying it’s time for “sweeping changes to the system.”
Barger said the commission will, in part, review the existing Joint Powers Authority that governs the county’s participation in LAHSA, assess the existing structure and provide recommendations for reform if needed.
“The Blue-Ribbon Commission on Homelessness is an opportunity to improve accountability, transparency, and inclusivity by engaging and collaborating with service providers, government agencies and our 88 city representatives to develop strategies and solutions to address the homelessness crisis,” said Barger. “The Commission will research homelessness governance reports and best practices from across the nation.”
But the panel will have fewer people than planned. Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Nury Martinez were supposed to nominate four people to the commission, but declined because they said its work would delay efforts already in motion to address the homelessness crisis.
What Does LAHSA Say?
Heidi Marston, LAHSA’s executive director, said the agency’s role is to get people off the streets, and that its work continues to support hundreds of people to secure housing every day.
“Ending homelessness involves answering three hard questions,” said Marston in an email to LAist. “First, why are people losing housing? Second, how do we build enough affordable housing to meet the need? And third, when people do become homeless, how do we support them in rapidly getting back into permanent housing?
Marston said LAHSA and its non-profit partners can’t do the work alone.
“While we work towards the most efficient and equitable rehousing system, we need the County of LA, its 88 cities, and our state and federal government to solve those first two questions,” Marston said. “This can only happen through a shared vision that interrupts the forces that drive people to become homeless and that creates affordable housing at scale.”
LAHSA’s focus on equity is realized by the groundbreaking 2018 Report and Recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness, which was an effort to address racism that underlies homelessness in Los Angeles.
LAHSA says its outreach teams provided temporary shelter for 5,300 people and permanent housing for 472 others in the first six months of this year. LAHSA’s outreach teams also made contact on 62,000 occasions with roughly 22,000 people, building trust and rapport with unsheltered people, according to an August 2021 press release. LAHSA said those interactions helped outreach teams get 15,208 people on the path to permanent housing through assessments or beginning case management services for them.
“Outreach is a critical part of the homeless rehousing system that we’ve built since the implementation of Measure H in 2017,” said Marston in the press release. “From 2015-2020, the annual number of contacts our outreach teams made has increased by 296% ... there is no doubt that our outreach teams’ efforts have significantly contributed to ending homelessness for the more than 65,000 people our system has housed over the last three years.”
LAHSA said it is also focused on developing ways to improve the effectiveness of its outreach teams by engaging in best practices for addressing street encampments, which offers guidance to LAHSA’s nonprofit partners. LAHSA is also calling on its government partners to make a “more significant investment” in low-barrier permanent housing for unsheltered people who are experiencing homelessness. An example of low-barrier permanent housing would be an unhoused person getting approved for an apartment despite having a criminal record, or someone who doesn’t have all the paperwork needed to process applications due to being unhoused.
Stagnant incomes among renters, lack of tenant protections, and rising costs related to affordable housing and mental health services are why there has been a rise in homelessness, according to LAHSA
In Los Angeles, LAHSA says roughly 500,000 affordable units are needed to meet the current demand. In 2020, only 529 permanent supportive housing units were added; nearly 13,000 are currently in development.