Fri, Apr

Why Does LAHSA Exist?


iAUDIT! - [NOTE: I drafted this column before LAist released its story on a leaked LAHSA report claiming LAMC 41.18 is ineffective, and Paul Kerkorian issued a press release saying LAHSA’s report is riddled with errors.  I will address this issue in a future column when more information is available.] 

As I mentioned in my previous column, LAHSA has been rocked by a series of events that strike at the heart of its reason for existence.  A few weeks ago, the County Board of Supervisors authorized a performance audit of the latest in a series of botched annual PIT counts.  That was followed by news the BOS also ordered a comprehensive review of LAHSA’s finances. In what can only be understood as a transparent attempt to distance herself from the failures that triggered the audits, Dr. La Vecia Adams Kellum, LAHSA’s CEO, fired three top executives, including the heads of Finance and IT, the departments targeted by the audits. 

There’s way too much to unpack in these events to fit in a single column, so let’s take things one at a time, and start with LAHSA’s supposed mission as it relates to its perennially mismanaged  PIT counts.  According to its website, LAHSA’s mission is to “To drive the collaborative strategic vision to create solutions for the crisis of homelessness grounded in compassion, equity, and inclusion." Setting aside the tortured syntax, one could reasonably infer LAHSA is the lead agency for addressing homelessness in LA County. “Driving the collaborative strategic vision” certainly implies a lead role in homelessness policy.  The webpage’s section on organizational values, under the title “Collaboration”, states “Our success is driven by our ability to build relationships, break down silos, and connect across teams, functions, populations, and geographies”. Again, this paints a picture of an agency with the responsibility and authority to cross organizational boundaries to create and manage effective programs. 

We now have a set of fairly clear expectations of LAHSA’s role in homelessness policy and programming. It drives collaborative efforts across departmental and jurisdictional lines to implement solutions. Now, let’s turn to the reality of what LAHSA does (or doesn’t do). 

On November 14, 2023, LAHSA’s Director of Government Affairs, Sally Malone, made a presentation to the Malibu-Los Virgenes Council of Governments, (COG).  Ms. Malone used a 30-slide presentation to highlight some of LAHSA’s program priorities and future plans.  The presentation, which starts at about 30 minutes into the meeting, stated LAHSA is responsible for administering the County’s Continuum of Care, which is supposed to provide shelter, housing, and services to the unhoused. The agency manages more than 700 contracts to fund outreach and services through its network of nonprofit agencies.  In addition, the presentation claims it focuses on accountability and transparency. So far, so good. Ms. Malone’s presentation seemed to track with LAHSA’s mission statement and values. 

However, during the discussion following the presentation, Ms. Malone stated LAHSA is once again making huge changes.  In what should come as no surprise, she admitted LAHSA has been primarily a pass-through agency that writes checks to other agencies and has never had nor imposed performance measures on its contractors.  However, she promised it is implementing strong measures. She said Dr. Adams Kellum is committed to reporting on the agency’s performance. The agency has hired managers experienced in creating performance measures and tracking productivity. She stressed the emphasis should be on “looking forward” instead looking at LAHSA’s past performance (or lack thereof). 

Wait a minute…LAHSA’s mission statement says it is the coordinating agency for homelessness interventions in Los Angeles, but a senior manager told a council of elected officials its never assumed that role.  How is that possible? Maybe she just misspoke. Let’s take a look at the 2023 PIT count presentation to see if we can get more information. 

After the disheartening results of the 2023 PIT count showed a nine percent increase in homelessness, one of the slides in LAHSA’s presentation said, “LAHSA is assuming a leadership and coordinating role to urgently address the humanitarian crisis happening on our streets.  We’re launching a Multi Departmental Crisis Response Team to bring people indoors quickly and expedite their journey through the system into permanent housing”. (slide 38).  Again, we see the disconnect between LAHSA’s mission statement and the way it actually operates. Why would it have to say it will be taking a leadership role when its mission statement says it has been the leading agency all along? 

Before answering that question, let’s consider what a leadership role should look like.  LASHA is the designated agency to manage LA County’s Continuum of Care (CofC).  One of the reasons LAHSA manages the annual PIT count is that it is Los Angeles County’s official CofC agency.  A reasonable person would expect an agency charged with coordinating the CofC would have the authority to require other departments and agencies to adhere to a comprehensive plan to address the unhoused population’s needs. Starting with LAHSA’s most basic duty, the PIT count, we can see why it isn’t fulfilling its role. 

The Point in Time count is the foundation for allocating resources to various agencies and prioritizing City and County budgets.  Most of LA County is divided into eight service planning areas (SPA’s). (A few cities aren’t part of the PIT count because they have their own CofC agencies). Service levels can be based on the homeless count in each SPA.  For example, the contract for a field service provider may include a requirement to contact a certain number of homeless people based on the SPA’s estimated unhoused population. The contract may require the provider to refer a percentage of the count’s estimated homeless to permanent housing agencies. Therefore, the count’s accuracy is critically important for allocating resources to areas according to need. 

Unfortunately, the PIT count is notoriously inaccurate. For example, the 2022 count recorded a 22 percent decrease of homeless people in SPA-5, covering the City of LA’s westside.  The results were trumpeted by officials as proof Housing First was working.  However, the count in SPA-5, and all over the County, was filled with errors.  Stories soon surfaced of volunteer counters who couldn’t upload their counts to the new tallying system.  Entire swaths of some areas were uncounted or ignored.  The 2023 count showed a 45 percent increase in the unhoused population in SPA-5. Neither the 2022 nor the 2023 numbers have any value because the counts are based on broad assumptions (e.g. there are always two people in an RV) and exempts many areas where encampments proliferate.  A recent article in the Westside Current details how volunteers were told not to count homeless locations at Will Rogers State Park or along PCH.  Worse, the article claims, when the missed areas were brought to the attention of LAHSA management, they were told the areas would be counted by state employees, a clear falsehood.  

Sue Pascoe of Circling the News asked LAHSA’s officials to explain why some areas weren’t counted. On February 29, LAHSA’s Paul Rubenstein Deputy Chief External Relations Officer emailed her, explaining there had been a “miscommunication” from LAHSA to a few Homeless Count Deployment Site Coordinators in coastal areas. Pascoe reported: 

“According to Rubenstein, some sandy beach areas of Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Venice, Westchester, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Palos Verdes and Wilmington may not have been consistently counted. 

He pointed out that beaches were counted in San Monica, San Pedro and Dockweiler Beach in Westchester. Dockweiler is in Playa del Rey”. 

In an All Aspect report, Christopher LeGras also detailed the many areas counters were told to bypass. LAHSA’s leaders, and its governing Commission, which includes elected officials from the City and County, know the counts have been deeply flawed but have never  seem concerned; they did not demand an overhaul of count methods despite documented problems. Perhaps because it is growing tired of being subjected to media scrutiny, the County Board of Supervisors took matters into its own hands, ordering a review of the 2024 count, which has been plagued by some of the same problems as previous counts. 

The demographic data LAHSA collects is as fabulist as the PIT count. According to the 2023 count, 25 percent of homeless people have serious substance abuse problems, while 30 percent have a serious mental illness.  These percentages are laughably (and tragically) low. The 2023 UCSF Benioff study reported 65 percent of respondents said they’d had periods of regular substance abuse, and of those, 64 percent said they started abusing drugs before they became homeless. Sixty-six percent said they’d experienced mental health issues within the previous 30 days. A 2019 California Policy Lab study of national homelessness reported 75 percent of respondents had substance abuse problems and 78 percent had mental health issues. Because LAHSA refuses to recognize untreated mental illness and substance abuse as causative factors of homelessness, effective outreach and treatment programs can’t be developed. No Barrier Housing First, in which treatment is entirely voluntary, simply does not work. 

In reality, LAHSA is an ineffective, mismanaged and unaccountable organizational behemoth that adds no value to homelessness response. It is inherently political, with a Board of Directors made up of elected officials, Housing First advocates, and community activists, devoid of balancing voices. Therefore, it spins or suppresses unfavorable data, such as the real number of homeless people in Los Angeles, (which may be as much as three times higher than reported), or how fatally the opiate epidemic has affected the homeless population—the County Department of Public Health now says fentanyl has pushed overdose deaths to the top of the causes of death among the unhoused.  But recognizing substance abuse as a causative factor in homelessness would mean the advocates’ narrative that housing costs are to blame is false, and that simply cannot be allowed into the conversation. 

In the end, we must really ask ourselves why LAHSA, with 1,000 employees and a fiscal year 2022-23 budget of $845 million, exists.  It serves no purpose other than funneling money to service providers, a task  that could easily be accomplished by adding a few accounting clerks to the County’s staff.  The PIT count’s gross inaccuracies has cost hundreds—if not thousands—of unhoused people their lives by ignoring their mental and medical needs. It wastes millions of dollars on inadequate solutions directed to the wrong areas.  As LA’s homeless population continues climbing despite ever-increasing spending, do we really need LAHSA keeping us stuck in the status quo?

(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.)