Above: Ethnic media reporters and advocates gather at Skid Row Housing Trust in Los Angeles on Friday, Feb. 3 to take part in a discussion about the county's homelessness initiatives.
LOS ANGELES – While Los Angeles is home to the nation’s largest homeless population, L.A. County has responded with a broad spectrum of programs to match.
The scope of the problem is large, but the agencies and organizations tasked with ending homelessness are making progress – progress that advocates say could be helped by greater public investment.
The March ballot initiative known as Measure H proposes a quarter-cent sales tax that would finance the medical, housing, and employment needs of a homeless population that includes large numbers of former foster youth, women, and people of color.
Voters have already shown a willingness to fund measures that help the people sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles. Measure H would complement a $1.2 billion bond measure that voters approved last year to build 10,000 housing units for the homeless.
If Measure H were to pass by the needed two-thirds vote, it would create an annual fund of $355 million to help a population that has swelled to nearly 47,000. The county would approve spending plans based on recommendations from those on the front lines of the fight against homelessness.
“We have a pervasive crisis of homelessness,” says Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative Director Phil Ansell, who helped create homeless prevention programs in his former role as chief deputy director of the county’s social services department. “This would help us deal comprehensively with the issue and address the needs of different homeless categories. This is a complex problem that requires government, business and nonprofits.”
The Home for Good coalition led by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce has housed about 18,000 veterans and more than 16,000 of the chronically homeless since 2011. It is among the organizations that will advise the county if the tax is approved.
Chris Ko, Home for Good’s director, says that more resources for homelessness prevention are needed because of high housing costs in the county.
In Koreatown, for example, Ko says that more than 1,000 people are homeless, and many more are “on the brink of homelessness.” Homelessness extends into all ethnic communities in Los Angeles, and Ko says that housing insecurity rates of Asians and Pacific Islanders are twice as high as those for whites.
Gentrification is creating more housing insecurity in Latino communities, says Celina Alvarez, the executive director of Housing Works, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.
“People are living in parks and under freeways with no hope,” she says. “Every human being has a right to a home and the right to live in communities where they are valued … We have criminalized their behavior and stigmatized and ostracized them.”
While the most visible homeless community is central to the Skid Row area, homeless teens and young adults – a growing segment of L.A.’s homeless population – are more dispersed, and thus can be “invisible” to agencies, according to Andrea Marchetti, the executive director of Jovenes Inc. Marchetti’s organization provides housing and employment counseling for youth and at-risk families in Los Angeles. The homeless youth population in L.A., which is somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 young people, includes many who were formerly in foster care, Marchetti says.
Women also represent an increasingly large segment of the homeless population, partly because of domestic violence, says Debra Suh, the executive director of the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, an organization that helps Asian and Pacific Islander (API) domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
One third of the homeless population is female, she says, and there has been a 55 percent increase in homeless women in the past three years. “We are not addressing domestic violence,” she says.
“Women have to choose between violence at home and unsafe streets. They are between a rock and a hard place.”
Many immigrant women seek her organization’s help because they have no network of friends and relatives, and because her teams can communicate in many different API languages.
More “cultural competency” in homeless services is needed if more people from a variety of communities are to be engaged, says Va Lecia Adams Kellum, the executive director of the St. Joseph Center, an organization that annually provides housing, mental health, educational, and vocational services to about 6,500 people in South Los Angeles and the city’s Westside.
The size of the homeless population that is African American is extremely disproportionate, she says. African American Angelenos are 39 percent of the homeless population in a city that is only 9 percent black.
“Who we hire makes a difference in this work,” she says. “African Americans and Latinos should be among those hired. It’s called ‘cultural competence’ and we should demand it.”
Moreover, ending homeless isn’t rocket science, according to Libby Boyce, the director of access, referral, and engagement for L.A. County’s Housing for Health program.
“The solution is housing with services,” she says. ”We know how to solve this problem. We just need the resources to reach all the homeless in our communities … The vast majority on our streets are long-term homeless and many have mental health problems and substance abuse problems.”
Reba Stevens is a Los Angeles resident who was homeless for 21 years until she obtained medical help for her substance use disorder. She jokes that when she first heard about Measure H, she changed her name to Reba “Measure H” Stevens.
“Supportive services are the reason I’ve been continuously housed the past 17 years,” she says. “Measure H will provide the resources to address individual needs.”