Local leaders must think beyond slow, expensive solutions to keep pace with rising homelessness

Will 59,936 people sleeping in encampments, vehicles and shelters throughout Los Angeles County be the tipping point for local leaders to finally get serious about addressing homelessness?

It better be. Angelenos are rapidly losing faith in the ability of social services organizations to address the crisis, the competence of elected leaders to execute effective policy solutions, and the promise of making a life in what has always been the City of Dreams.

In highly impacted neighborhoods such as Venice, hardworking people are increasingly frustrated about paying outrageous prices to live among unsanitary, unsafe and frankly Third World conditions. The city’s collective sympathy for the homeless is already beyond tested, and the situation has only gotten worse despite hundreds of millions of dollars in public spending.

It may come as a shock that Los Angeles-area government and social services agencies are housing homeless people in record numbers — more than 21,600 in 2018, compared to 17,500 in 2017 and 15,100 in 2016. The rub is that more people are becoming homeless than ever before. Although 48,000 people found their way out of homelessness (or the area) last year, another 55,000 became homeless, according to this year’s Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. The difference represents a 12% increase in homelessness countywide, and a 16% increase in the city of Los Angeles alone.

That city leaders, nonprofit agencies and taxpayers are pushing harder on this issue than ever before but still losing ground indicates that we need to update and diversify our plan of attack.

Traditional affordable housing projects can play an important role in maintaining economic diversity in neighborhoods where poor people have been pushed out. But at an average cost to build of around $500,000 per apartment, these projects require too much time and resources to be considered effective solutions to an immediate crisis.

Los Angeles voters approved the $1.2-billion Proposition HHH housing bond in November 2016. It took a staggering two years, six months and 24 days for the first of that HHH-funded housing to become a reality — just 49 units of permanent supportive housing and 250 temporary shelter beds that opened in Sun Valley on May 31. That’s 935 days to house roughly 300 people, and at a price tag of $52 million.

Three years ago, before Prop HHH, a local nonprofit spent $10 million to house two dozen formerly homeless men and women in the 20-unit Gateway Apartments on Beach Avenue in Del Rey. These apartments are so nice that the average working person could not afford to rent one at market rate. We do not begrudge the good fortune of supportive housing residents, but it’s starting to seem ludicrous and unfair when two dozen homeless people hit the housing lottery while tens of thousands of others languish without shelter of any kind.

When you have nearly 60,000 people living and dying on the streets — 36,300 in the city of Los Angeles alone — it is a failure of leadership to not pursue more cost-effective solutions to address and prevent homelessness. Los Angeles won’t build its way out of homelessness at roughly half a million dollars per person, couple or family.

Just as there are many different circumstances and characteristics among homeless people, there needs to be an investment in many different kinds of housing solutions — and the majority of it should be executed as quickly as possible in order to help the maximum number of people right now, not a small number of them two and a half years from now.

College students sleep in dormitories and share apartments, and so can many of the homeless. As seen in The Argonaut in February, Venice resident Heidi Roberts is creating self-sustaining “collaborative” housing by converting duplexes into functioning group homes, with formerly homeless residents sharing facilities and contributing a few hundred dollars in monthly rent to help pay the mortgage. Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Westside neighborhoods, approved a $50,000 pilot program for shared housing a few years ago, but in his own words the city has failed to sufficiently fund this strategy.

On Tuesday, Bonin proposed levying some sort of fee against landlords who deliberately keep habitable housing units empty for extended periods of time. That’s the kind of thinking we need, but it’s a shame this idea is only coming forward now. Vacancy penalties already exist in other cities, while in Los Angeles there is U.S. Census data to suggest as many as 111,000 housing units remain empty in the midst of a crisis-level housing shortage.

As city hall continues to facilitate construction of luxury market-rate housing for the wealthy and very costly subsidized housing for the destitute, it’s the working people in the middle who are getting pushed out of the housing market, becoming so rent-burdened that they are only a paycheck or two away from becoming homeless themselves.

Without creative, cost-effective and fast-acting solutions, we’ll continue to see the disappointing status quo: people sleeping in tents and cars in such great number that the average person is overwhelmed by it all — a perverse normalization of homelessness, and hopelessness, for lack of creative thinking in the creativity capital of America.