“Homelessness is a problem that involves thousands of people and requires a massive response but at the end of the day it’s really about one person at a time,“ said Miguel A. Santana, Los Angeles’ city administrative officer.
I visited Santana in his City Hall East office this week for guidance on the homeless relief plans that come in confusing number almost weekly from city hall and the county hall of administration.
Santana is the key person in the city’s efforts to deal with the fast growing number of homeless and the encampments that house them. Answering to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the 15-member city council, he has direct oversight for the city budget and departments, including those dealing with homelessness. He must also mesh the city’s efforts with those of county government, which operates welfare, foster care, emergency hospitals, jails, health clinics and other units that provide care for the homeless. In addition, both the city and the county are seeking federal funds to supplement local money for emergency and long term housing for the homeless.
Santana is well equipped for the job. Before he became city administrative officer in 2009, he was a deputy county administrative officer, supervising the departments that provide social services to the homeless and other poor.
Too many people see the homeless as a pitiful, disgusting or scary mass of unfortunates, all pretty much the same. It’s much more complicated, Santana said, and so are the solutions. “Each person who is out on the street today is there for a different set of reasons,” he said. Those helping them must tailor solutions to the widely varying needs of people who range from addicts and mentally ill to families thrust onto the streets by job loss or illness. It calls, he said, for “intensive case management.”
I asked Santana how he is getting disparate city and county bureaucracies together on the complex program of creating low cost housing while persuading the homeless to give up the street life for an apartment.
“I was on a conference call today with my counterparts in the county,“he said. “It helps that the majority of the people in the county working on this I worked with when I was there several years ago.” That would be a departure from years of feuding and non-cooperation between the city and county.
I asked a county supervisorial aide working on homeless about this. “We are in constant communication with city council offices, mayor's office, the city attorney,“ the aide said. “There is unprecedented cooperation, and the elected officials in office today understand the need for this. They have learned from the past,”
Mayor Garcetti recently met with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl authored the supervisors’ plan to allocate more money for low-income housing. Garcetti and Ridley-Thomas’ goals coincide—higher wages, more housing and a plan to persuade the homeless to use it. Their exchange of letters following the meeting had the careful, formal sound of statements made by heads of state after they get together and paper over differences—sort of Putin and Obama. But they each concluded their letters with pledges to work together.
For it to work, they and other elected officials will have to answer a central question posed by Miguel Santana during our conversation—who will assume command of the effort. The mayor? Fifteen council members? The five supervisors?
“Because for the longest time, our homeless strategy has been one looking at the other and saying you’re in charge,” he said. “ And at the end of the day nobody was really in charge. “