LOS ANGELES — Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council members and county supervisors met Oct. 20 with U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro to discuss homelessness, hailing the current level of city and county collaboration as unprecedented.
“It’s wonderful to see not only the breadth of commitment … but the depth of brain power here,” Garcetti said.
Castro highlighted the importance of finding solutions to a problem that has made Los Angeles what the mayor and others referred to as the “homeless capital of America.”
“As goes L.A., so goes the nation,” the HUD secretary said.
The meeting was intended as an exchange of ideas, and Castro told the crowd assembled at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown that he was “here to listen.”
However, he did take time to remind the policymakers that “criminalizing homelessness is not the best approach.”
Advocates for the homeless agreed, saying the city was still directing resources into bad police tactics.
“Blacks, browns are going to jail for being homeless,” community organizer Steve Diaz of Los Angeles Community Action Network told the officials.Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson,
On an earlier trip, Castro toured South Los Angeles with where, the councilman said, “every time we stopped at a stoplight there was an encampment.”
Harris-Dawson said the type of homelessness varied from community to community, highlighting the difficulty of addressing a problem so big that both city and county officials have made recent $100 million commitments to tackling it.
No major new announcements were made, but policymakers asked for federal help and highlighted several potential solutions.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for reforms to mental health laws.
“Over 90 percent refuse treatment,” Antonovich said of a program to reach out to people sleeping on benches at bus and train stations.
Using healthcare dollars to help pay for housing was another idea mentioned by several officials as a logical next step in a policy of “housing first.” Most policymakers now favor providing housing with supportive services as a first step, rather than requiring treatment as a threshold to housing eligibility.
Garcetti said the federal government can only do so much.
“We can’t look for anybody on a white horse to ride in,” Garcetti said.
But many indicated that there is more that HUD can do, from issuing more vouchers for veterans to changing its method of allocating funding.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said Los Angeles County was being “punished” under HUD rules because regional housing costs are going up, driving up the number of transient individuals despite strides made in housing the homeless.
A countywide count has shown a 12 percent jump over the past two years in the number of homeless people living in the city and county of Los Angeles.
More than 44,000 homeless people were tallied around the county in January and 70 percent of those were “unsheltered” and living on the streets, according to county CEO Sachi Hamai.
City Councilman Mike Bonin said it would take two to three years “at minimum” to find permanent housing for many of those currently living on the streets and called on Castro to provide a broader range of tools to help in the interim.
“The policy is effectively sidewalks first,” Bonin said, asking Castro “to be our cavalry.”
Castro said the federal government would take comments in the spring on a new formula for allocating aid to states.
But, Garcetti said, “government can’t end homelessness alone,” pointing to what he said were 533 veterans living on the streets with vouchers in hand because they can’t find a place to live.
Harris-Dawson cited the city’s land use authority as a “big chip” in addressing homelessness. Land use, including the ability to adjust zoning and permitting processes to encourage more affordable housing, is just one of nine policy issues being debated by the Homeless Initiative set up by Los Angeles County.
Employment, street outreach and Affordable Care Act opportunities are among the policy points being debated by county and city officials as they work toward a comprehensive plan.
Hamai said she hoped a draft report from the Homeless Initiative would be available in December. A full set of recommendations is expected in February.
Supervisor Hilda Solis also raised concerns about an anticipated record-setting El Niño, even as city and county officials move to increase access to winter shelter beds.
“We need help from FEMA,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Solis told Castro, citing a rash of homeless individuals living in watershed areas that will be potential flood danger zones in major storms.