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Supervisors send quarter-cent homeless tax to voters

LOS ANGELES — A newly reconstituted county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan Dec. 6 to put a quarter-cent sales tax hike to fund the fight against homelessness before voters in a special countywide election in March.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas teamed up with Supervisor Janice Hahn to recommend the tax, a measure Ridley-Thomas had pushed for in July, but failed to garner enough support to pass.

The board also considered a number of other funding alternatives for homeless services, including a millionaires’ tax, a parcel tax and a tax on marijuana, but could not agree on any option to put before voters in November.

Hundreds of people were in the audience to show support for the fight against homelessness, including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Los Angeles City Councilmen Gil Cedillo, Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Jose Huizar.

Organizers who assembled a crowd outside on Temple Street before the board meeting said more than 75 organizations, including community advocates, labor unions and faith groups, had joined together to press for a March ballot measure on the issue. It took more than an hour for everyone to clear through security and some were forced to stand in the back of the packed board room, while others assembled outside listening to the meeting over loudspeakers.

“This is the face of democracy in the county,” Ridley-Thomas said. “With this historic vote, we are taking a bold step towards ending this humanitarian crisis, the defining civic issue of our time.”

Ridley-Thomas also joined with Supervisor Kathryn Barger on a proposal to have homelessness declared a county emergency, a move that paves the way to put the sales tax on the March ballot. That motion was also unanimously approved.

The board voted in June to press state officials to declare a statewide emergency and direct more funding to the problem. The Los Angeles City Council and some state lawmakers have echoed that call, but Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted such efforts.

Hahn said that if any other disaster — an earthquake, fire or flood — left 47,000 people homeless, “We would bring every resource we could and many people would stay up at night worrying” about how to get people back in their homes.

That January point-in-time count of the homeless reflects a 19 percent increase since 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

“In contrast to almost anywhere else in the United States, most people who are experiencing homelessness in the county of Los Angeles are unsheltered,” the county’s Assistant CEO Fesia Davenport said.

The number of those in tent encampments, huddled under freeway overpasses or otherwise on the street account for nearly three-quarters of the 47,000 homeless people, according to the homeless authority data.

Cedillo recalled a recent trip to Hamburg, Germany, during which he didn’t see one homeless person.

“Not one person in this county should be sleeping on the streets,” Cedillo said.

Harris-Dawson told the board that the city of Los Angeles’ recent success in passing Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to fund the construction of housing for the homeless, cannot stand alone, as the city relies on the county to provide supportive services.

“HHH only works if the county can make an investment in services,” Harris-Dawson said.

The county and most advocates across the country now back a model called “housing first,” which focuses on getting people into housing in spite of drug, alcohol or other problems they may have and then offers mental health and substance abuse treatment and other supportive services.

Officials have learned, Hahn said, “It’s impossible to get your life together if you’re on the streets.”

Huizar told the board that he hoped voters understood the already high costs of homelessness in terms of emergency room and jail visits, among other expenses.

“It costs all of us more in one way or another if we leave these individuals in the street,” Huizar said.

It will cost $450 million annually to provide the supportive services, short-term housing subsidies and emergency shelter needed to end homelessness and keep people off the streets, according to the homeless services authority. That does not include the construction costs funded by Measure HHH and other sources.

The quarter-cent sales tax is estimated to provide $355 million annually for 10 years. A sunset clause is built in for accountability and assessment.

The absolute numbers are large, but Phil Ansell, the director of the county’s homeless initiative, broke it down for voters, saying the tax would amount to “an additional tax of one dime on the purchase of a $40 sweater or $1 on the purchase of a $400 television.”

Two-thirds of voters will need to approve the measure for it to pass.

Barger pressed state lawmakers to allocate additional funding to Medicaid so that more federal matching funds could be drawn down and used to provide services to the homeless.

“As we move forward, it shouldn’t be an either or, it should be an and,” Barger said of state versus county funding.

Department of Health Services Director Mitchell Katz said, “First and foremost, homelessness is a health issue.”

Katz told the story of a man he met in a county urgent care clinic.

“Here we have a man in his 60s who has suffered a stroke, living in a friend’s garage and sleeping sitting up in his wheelchair,” giving him a pressure sore that won’t go away, Katz said. “There are many diseases I cannot cure. … I can actually cure homelessness. The cure is a house.”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan spoke for the arts community, telling the board that when he promotes Los Angeles County as a bright center of creativity and innovation he also has to address the region’s challenges.

“How can we in Los Angeles succeed … if it appears there aren’t basic standards of life accessible to all?” Govan asked.