“No one should expect the problem to be solved overnight,” cautioned former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky when I asked him about the latest and most promising aid proposal for a homeless population now suffering through El Nino’s driving rain.
Senate President pro tem Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat, along with Democratic and Republican colleagues, has proposed the state issue $2 billion in bonds. Money from the sale of bonds, combined with federal and state funds, officials said, could pay for construction of 10,000 to 14,000 housing units over a several year period. The bonds would be repaid from funds from a state tax levied by the voters in 2004, to provide services and housing for the mentally ill, many of whom are homeless. In addition, de Leon and the others would allocate $200 million for rent subsidies to provide shelter while the new housing is built.
Yaroslavsky likes the proposal but noted it has a long way to go. I called him because, while supervisor, he was behind the most creative solution for the county’s homeless crisis, worst in the state and probably the nation. It was a pilot project giving some of the most chronic homeless apartments. Then, safely housed, they were treated for mental illness, addiction or whatever else pushed them into homelessness. Success rate, Yaroslavsky said, has been 90 percent. This approach, called “housing first,” is in contrast to the more traditional approach of big homeless shelters. Critics say that in such shelters homeless are separated from family, friends and possessions and required to pledge sobriety and to accept treatment before they are given a bed-- an approach that doesn’t work as well as housing first.
“It takes time, but we know it works,” said Yaroslavsky, who was term limited out of office and now teaches at UCLA. He told me the story of a chronically homeless man, once a UCLA engineering student, who had been on the streets for years. A social worker for a non-profit homeless agency worked for many months to persuade him to move into an apartment, where he settled into a safe life and then accepted treatment for his ailments. Such efforts would have to be multiplied, Yaroslavsky said.
The de Leon proposal must be approved by Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Assembly, in addition to passing the Senate. Also pending are proposals by the city and the county to put money into homeless programs.
If all these proposals get beyond the talking stage—which would be somewhat of a miracle—the funds would be administered by a little known agency, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, whose members are appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the county Board of Supervisors.
The agency, Yaroslavsky said, should direct its efforts toward housing first programs. Money should go to “people who give the homeless homes.” He said there “should be an unconditional commitment for housing first.”
As Yaroslavsky said, there is a long way to go before something is put together. With the El Nino rains, the homeless issue has become big news. With sunshine it will recede. What is needed is someone to take hold of the matter and focus all attention on plans as they lumber through government agencies. Sounds like a job for Mayor Garcetti, the most visible and potentially influential elected official in the county.