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RAND Rethinks Homelessness:

Having a world-renowned think tank in one’s hometown can have its uses.  RAND Corporation has been studying homelessness for 20 years, having published its first report on the subject in 1988, as noted by Iao Katagiri, its Deputy Vice President of External Affairs and Director of Community Relations.  And so,  “Rethinking Solutions to Homelessness in Los Angeles” was the subject of RAND’s most recent Policy Forum Thursday, February 22, at the research nonprofit’s Main Street headquarters. 

On an evening on which the audience was filled with various “experts” in their own right – service providers, public officials, funding contributors and others – RAND presented a panel of: Ed Edelman, Santa Monica’s Special Representative for Homeless Initiatives; Torie Osborn, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa’s special advisor on homelessness; RAND psychologist Suzanne Wenzel, a Senior Behavioral Scientist who studies homeless issues with particular emphasis on women; and moderator Paul Koegel, Associate Director of RAND Health, who has been with the organization since its early homelessness research. 

The themes that emerged during the evening – spanning the speakers’ presentations and the contributions from the audience – seemed to be four: (1) Los Angeles must commit and plan not to manage homelessness, but to end it; (2) the causes of homelessness today are both structural and personal; (3) the “Housing First” model has proved to be the most successful solution, and (4) the NIMBY attitude (Not In My BackYard) can and must be overcome.

Torie Osborn called Los Angeles “the only major city in the U.S. without a coordinated plan to end homelessness,” noting that 220 cities in America have such a plan.  She characterized the “Bring L.A. Home” report as a good foundation, but said that it did not have the necessary “metrics, strategy and plan of action” to get the job done.  Paul Koegel did not think that Los Angeles was yet thinking in terms of ending homelessness rather than merely managing it.  Osborn said that of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County, only 25 do anything at all to address homelessness.  She quoted a New York deputy mayor as saying that Los Angeles is today where New York was 20 years ago and as hoping that LA can learn from the New York experience.

Suzanne Wenzel described the 1950s image of the homeless as older white male alcoholics – a traditional “skid row” image – and explained that the face of homelessness changed in the 1970s and early 1980s with deindustrialization, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the gentrification of less expensive residential neighborhoods.  All of the panelists acknowledged that the problem today results from both structural factors (lack of housing, shifts in the economy) and particular personal limitations (mental health, substance abuse).  “Skid row has been our regional solution to homelessness for 100 years: out of sight, out of mind,” said Osborn.  The causes today require more comprehensive solutions.

“Don’t pour more money into shelters, but go straight to permanent housing: that is the fix for chronic homelessness.”  That was the New York deputy mayor’s advice to Osborn, she said.  All panelists urged a massive push toward what they called “permanent supportive housing” – meaning subsidized, permanent housing coupled with support services (health, employment, counseling and the like).  The thinking seems to be that it’s tough to find a job when you’re sleeping in a shelter and all day carrying around a backpack/suitcase/bedroll that screams, “Homeless.”  This “Housing First” model is the solution of choice produced by the rethinking process.

Ed Edelman led off his presentation by saying, “We have failed to explain how we are all affected by homelessness,” and went on to recount the many costs (including medical treatment and jail facilities) that could be saved by addressing the problem earlier and more effectively.  During the period for questions and comments from the audience, Santa Monica Councilmember Kevin McKeown said that even after appealing to the public’s compassion and to its own economic interests, there remained “the bigger problem of proximity” – people do not want homeless facilities next door or down the block from them.

Osborn said that “building public will” was one of the three points of Mayor Villaraigosa’s plan (the others being increased support and funding for LAHSA [the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county joint powers agency] and permanent supportive housing).  Wenzel said that sociologists talk of “contact hypothesis,” which describes the fact that greater exposure to homeless persons generally results in more favorable attitudes toward them.  An audience member urged support for SB 2 pending in the state Senate, which would make emergency shelters and transitional housing a “use by right” so as to reduce requirements for conditional use permits and concomitant neighborhood objections.

The panelists and audience acknowledged that a distinctive difficulty that separates Los Angeles from many other cities is the division of government responsibilities here between the County and the 88 cities within the county.  It is the City of Los Angeles, for example, that is responsible for housing in its jurisdiction, while it is the County that is responsible for health care and other services.  If the City spends more to promote Housing First, it is the County that will save on the cost of services.  And as Edelman noted at one point, “You know, sometimes there’s rivalry between political leaders.”

Elsewhere on the homelessness front, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that that city had received $19.7 million in federal funds to help fight homelessness under the 20-year-old program known as McKinney grants, administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and totaling $1.4 billion nationally this year.  San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom echoed the rethinking of the RAND panel: “Soup kitchens solve hunger, shelters solve sleep, permanent supportive housing solves homelessness.  Permanent supportive housing is the cornerstone of our strategy to end homelessness in our city, and it is working.”

Santa Monica does not receive federal McKinney grants directly, but does get such money through LAHSA, which received 2006 awards of $52.5 million, according to Santa Monica Human Services Administrator Stacy Rowe; this, in addition to certain federal funds made available for specific projects and for a very few cities that apply separately from LAHSA.

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