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Housing and Homelessness

White House Picks LA For National Plan To Reduce Homelessness

A wider shot reveals a series of tents along the street in front of a brick wall with a mural of the American flag, turned horizontally and also showing a rifle with a helmet perched on its barrel. Two people can be seen around the tents, which have various colors.
Makeshift tents on a street in Los Angeles, home to one of the nation's largest populations of people experiencing homelessness.
(Frederic J. Brown
Getty Images)
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The White House has chosen the city of Los Angeles as one of six sites across the country to participate in a new federal initiative to reduce homelessness in the U.S. by 25% over the next two years.

In addition to Los Angeles, the Biden administration announced Thursday its new efforts to address homelessness will focus on Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle and the state of California.

“To end homelessness we must work together,” said Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in a press conference marking the announcement. “For the next two years, our team at USICH along with colleagues at the White House and our federal partner agencies will work hand in hand with state and local officials and community leaders to move unsheltered people into homes as quickly and as humanely as possible.”

As part of the plan, the Biden administration will embed a federal official in each of the local governments. It’ll also task various federal departments with cutting red tape, issuing government identification documents faster (which can speed up access to resources) and helping unhoused people connect with programs such as federally funded housing vouchers and Medicaid.

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America’s capital of unsheltered homelessness

L.A. is the epicenter of the country’s unsheltered homelessness crisis, with the county home to 1 out of every 5 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness across the nation. At last count, more than 69,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in L.A. County, and almost 49,000 of them are unsheltered.

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass has long said the federal government should play a greater role in confronting L.A.’s homelessness crisis. During her trip to the White House earlier this year, she urged President Joe Biden to get more involved.

“President Biden said he wanted to reduce homelessness by 25% in the country, and I immediately began calling him and saying to come to L.A.,” she told reporters earlier this year. “Because frankly, if you dug some roots here, you could meet your national goals — seriously, you can — in this city alone.”

Bass joined Olivet and other Biden administration officials for a virtual press conference on the announcement on Thursday.

The federal partnership comes the same day L.A.’s city council approved Bass’ request for $250 million in new funding for her signature homelessness initiative Inside Safe. The program has moved about 1,200 people from street encampments into temporary hotel rooms, but it’s unclear how many of them have moved on to permanent housing. L.A. city councilmembers voted Thursday to require greater transparency of the program, following problems first reported by LAist.

Can the feds succeed where local policies have failed?

During the pandemic, massive infusions of federal funding have helped L.A. respond to its homelessness crisis.

More than $2.5 billion in federal rental relief funds helped prevent many L.A. County renters from falling into homelessness. Project Roomkey used federal funding to temporarily house more than 10,000 unhoused Angelenos in hotel and motel rooms. And Congressional pandemic relief delivered 3,365 emergency housing vouchers to the city of L.A., which has failed to quickly turn those vouchers into leases (about half of the city’s vouchers are still going unused).

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Recent White House administrations have taken a more hands-off approach to urban homelessness, viewing the issue as a local problem for local governments to fix.

RAND economist Jason Ward, co-director of the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, said the new initiative advances some interesting ideas on streamlining federal housing vouchers and using Medicaid funds to cover street medicine and housing costs.

But he said the plan does little to tackle one of the main drivers of L.A. homelessness: the city’s severe lack of affordable housing.

“We just live in sort of a morass of regulations and inertia that have arisen since the 1980s slow-growth movement,” Ward said. “That has dragged down the process of housing production in L.A. I think that the federal government can do very little to address that.”

Bass sounded more optimistic during Thursday’s press conference. Currently, she said the city faces a bottleneck: 1,200 people are in temporary housing as part of Inside Safe, but moving them into permanent housing has been difficult.

“And that is exactly why this … is so important,” Bass said. “Things like presumptive eligibility — that would allow people to be housed right away instead of spending months while we compile documents and verify that they're in fact in need — the idea that we might be able to do that through this … will really be a huge step forward.”

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