Wed, Jul

Homelessness and the Ministry of Silly Walks


iAUDIT - In early July, I wrote an article on LAHSA’s latest PIT count that compared that agency’s attempts to spin the dismal numbers to the absurdist comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In the article, I mentioned the Ministry of Silly Walks skit. It’s a brilliant piece of physical comedy, with John Cleese lurching down the sidewalk like a deranged kangaroo. But it was also a none-too-subtle jab at the UK’s penchant for creating redundant and useless government agencies.

If the Ministry of Silly Walks was real, and if it needed a new leader, then it would need look no further than the current leaders of Los Angeles’ homeless intervention agencies.  Many leaders, both elected and appointed, have shown a remarkable inability to make even a slight dent in homelessness despite spending billions of dollars and expending a tremendous amount of bureaucratic energy. Outreach teams from a kaleidoscope of overlapping agencies roam the City like players in a psychotic game of hide-and-seek, looking for unhoused people to serve. Encampments are temporarily cleared, cleaned, sanitized, and then the camp’s dwellers move back before sunset.  Officials brag about “housing” dozens or hundreds of people while thousands languish on the streets, many of whom have never received any type of service. Top executives at service provider agencies make six-figure salaries while their field staff barely make enough to stay housed themselves.

Just for perspective, the list of City and County agencies providing some type of service to the homeless population includes:

  • The County Department of Public Health
  • The County Department of Mental Health
  • The County Department of Health Services
  • The County Department of Public Social Services
  • The County Homeless Initiative, which is supposed to coordinate homeless services at the County level
  • The City of Los Angeles Department of Housing and Community Investment
  • The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles
  • The City of Los Angeles’ Mayor Office, Chief of Homelessness and Housing
  • LAHSA, the Los Angeles Homeless Servies Agency, a joint powers authority created by the City and the County.

In addition to these nine agencies, each of L.A.’s 15 Council Districts has a homelessness response staff.  The police, sheriff’s and fire departments have some form of homeless response team, and the Los Angeles City Departments of Sanitation (LASAN) and Department of Transportation (LADOT) provide encampment clean-up services. The City’s Planning Department has the thankless task of trying to wedge affordable housing into every possible square foot of land, often defying logic and its own rules. Even the Library system has gotten into the act, passing out Narcan to homeless people who flood its buildings.  Add to all these government agencies a constellation of at least 100 non-profit service providers, some of which have contracts with the County, the City, LAHSA, or a combination of all three. There are literally tens of thousands of public and NGO employees with one job—to alleviate the homeless crisis that seems to grow by the day.

If you’re wondering who is in charge of this complex matrix of departments, agencies, and nonprofits, the answer is “Nobody”. LAHSA, which may rival the Ministry of Silly Walks in its uselessness, provides hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofits, but has authority over neither the City’s nor the County’s departments.  Because L.A. has a weak mayor form of government, the Mayor’s Chief of Homelessness and Housing is merely an advocate for her boss’ policies with no control over what happens in each Council District. Likewise, none of the County departments are accountable to the others, which explains why many homeless people who need medical and mental health services never get the support they need, or get lost in the system.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen mounting evidence city and county agencies are making themselves increasingly irrelevant in the fight against homelessness:

  • LAHSA’s 2023 PIT count showed a general nine percent increase in homelessness throughout the County, with some areas showing increases near 45 percent.
  • Inside Safe, which Mayor Bass promised would get 17,000 people off the street, had sheltered about 1,400 through June.
  • Some of those 1,400 may or may not really be housed. As previously reported, LAHSA doesn’t track the status of the occupants in rooms its paying for under Inside Safe, and the City is probably paying for vacant rooms, while people on the streets wait for shelter.
  • Of those 1,400 people, about one person per day has been permanently housed, but the term permanently housed has been applied quite loosely to a variety of living situations.
  • Despite reports of stratospheric overdose rates in “rapid rehousing” hotels, the Bass administration just paid $83 million for the Mayfair Hotel near DTLA, or about $242,000 per room. That price doesn’t reflect the $11 million in repairs the hotel’s owners are demanding from the City for damages incurred when it was a project Roomkey site.
  • And the $11 million the City is paying to the Mayfair’s owners doesn’t have to be used to make repairs before the City buys the hotel. The owners will pocket the money and the City will make any needed repairs after the purchase. That deal was too Python-esque for Councilmember Monica Rodriguez, who said. “To propose a rushed acquisition of a property we’ve paid $11 million in damages to repair, and take possession without repairs being completed, is not a deal I believe any taxpayer would view as too good to pass up,”
  • Among the hotels that are supposed to house people under an agreement with the City of LA, 17 were recently cited for also offering rooms as short-term rentals, in violation of those agreements. This in itself wouldn’t be so strange, except that L.A’s Housing Department hasn’t filed required reports on the rental program in 15 years.

Responding to the latest PIT count, local officials had different reactions.  Mayor Bass tried to put a positive spin on the news, saying her Inside Safe program has housed 1,400 people.  But she also expressed concern that with eviction protections ending, more people could become homeless. Councilmember Traci Park said current programs clearly aren’t working, and there needs to be more emphasis on mental health and drug treatment.  Nithya Raman, a strong Housing First proponent, blamed the shutdown of some Project Roomkey locations.  Community advocates blamed everything from high rents to economics to a lack of public housing. . In what will probably be the most grotesque understatement of 2023, LAHSA CEO Va Lecia Adams Kellum called  the news “disappointing but not surprising”, as if failure has become so commonplace it should be expected. 

City Controller Kenneth Meija, who is doing his best to make his once-proud office as irrelevant as the Ministry of Silly Walks, has been nowhere to be found when it comes to holding housing agencies accountable, even though his department is supposed to monitor contract performance.  As reported by Angela McGregor in the Westside Curent, the CAO’s office had to inform the Council LAHSA has no idea how many Inside Rooms are actually occupied. “According to a report from the City Administrator, Matt Szabo, dated July 23, 2023:  ‘As of July 27, 2023, permanent housing and other exit data has not yet achieved an acceptable level of accuracy and will continue to be the focus of improvement.’ " Mr. Mejia seems more interested in making snappy Tik Tok videos instead of doing his job as the watchdog of the City’s financial resources.  Then again, his so-called Director of Homelessness and Housing Program Accountability, Ashley Bennett, is a zealous advocate of Housing First, who barely a year ago was enthusiastically taking part in disrupting Council meetings, screaming about “criminalizing homelessness.”

With the exception of Park, who danced around the issue, not a single local leader questioned the failure of the City’s and County’s core programs—Harm Reduction and No Barrier Housing First.

In the best Monty Python tradition, one poor policy inevitably leads to others. Because homeless advocates have convinced most local leaders homelessness is caused by high housing costs, the City has been on a building binge, or at least has tried.  The billions of dollars generated by Measure HHH were supposedly going to provide 10,000 housing units but  will now provide about 5,800—eventually.  Failing building needed housing itself, the City has gone on an upzoning rampage, trying to shoehorn affordable housing projects along “transportation corridors” that don’t exist, and telling homeowners having a four-story apartment block next door is a Great Thing.

Unlike a Monty Python skit, the City and County are dealing with real life and real lives.  There’s nothing funny about programs that spend billions in taxpayer money and achieve nothing other than increasing the misery on the streets and in neighborhoods affected by homelessness. 

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)