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Welcome to L.A., Where Boldness Equals Shamelessness

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - If you’ve read anything about homelessness programs in the past year, you’ve no doubt encountered the word “bold” several times.  In her April 15 State of the  City speech, Mayor Bass said, “And I know City Hall can do big, bold things for L.A…”. In the same speech, she promised to disrupt the status quo eight times. A group of nonprofit providers, community organizations and construction companies pushing a new half-cent sales tax promises “bold action” to tackle homelessness with the new funds. In response to another year of increased homelessness in L.A., LAHSA’s CEO Dr, Va Lecia Adams Kellum promised “bold steps” were being taken to improve services and produce results. Apparently, in the twisted lexicon of LA’s homelessness programs, “boldness” and “shamelessness” are synonymous. 

If you doubt my words, consider the following: 

In the summer of 2023, Council member Katy Yaroslavsky claimed the homelessness crisis required the “bold action” of approving an interim housing facility on Pico Blvd., on what is currently a City-owned parking lot.  This approval came despite objections from business owners and residents who said the lot was needed so people could park near the area’s small businesses. Ms. Yaroslavsky approved the project with almost no public notice. The approval included a management contract for L.A. Family Housing, (LAFH), a nonprofit with a track record of unaddressed problems at a shelter it runs in North Hollywood. The contract was granted on a sole source no bid basis; it was later found that Yaroslavsky’s Homelessness Director had recently been a manager with LAFH.  An early August “listening session” with the Mayor and Yaroslavsky was quickly terminated when residents and merchants voiced their dismay over the lack of transparency. So, at least for the Mayor and Councilmember Yaroslavsky, “bold” means opaque back room deals and excluding the community’s voice. 

A May 10 LA Times article described a $51 million state grant to the County’s Homeless Initiative Office to help move people from encampments from the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers near the 105 freeway. County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the grant will help move hundreds of people inside. While that sounds wonderful, bear in mind, as far as LAHSA’s 2023 PIT count is concerned, many of those people don’t exist. In his All Aspect Report column, Christopher Legras describes his experience at a count volunteer, including being told not to count encampments along rivers. Therefore, considering the number of rivers and drainage channels in LA County, and their popularity as encampment locations, hundreds, and more likely thousands, of people were uncounted in this and previous counts. After major problems with previous counts, LAHSA’s leadership promised “bold action” to make the counts more accurate.  Apparently, “bold” does not include counting people who are now the subject of a $51 million grant. 

In one of the strangest “studies” conducted on homelessness, a think tank concluded Project Roomkey was a huge success. Project Roomkey was the state-funded program to house people in hotels and motels during the COVID pandemic. To quote the LA Times article, “ ‘Not only were people getting inside, they were getting treated for healthcare conditions that had never been treated since they became homeless, ‘ Nichole Fiore, lead author and principal associate at Abt Global said in an interview”.  However, the study offers scant evidence for such optimism. A more balanced and detailed article on Calmatter’s website noted, “But at the same time, the researchers pointed out a troubling dearth of available data on the program. With the little information they were able to access, they found that people who left the program had at least a 40% chance of returning to homelessness”. And. “But the researchers acknowledged large holes in the accessible state and local data. For example, they couldn’t cross-reference death records or information about participants’ health, meaning they had no way to prove Roomkey prevented deaths or kept people healthier”.  So, Ms. Fiore’s assertion that thousands of people received health care is based on supposition. One must wonder, then, what evidence the think tank used to rate the program as so successful. 

Project Roomkey’s supposed success must also be measured against its costs. In San Francisco, several hotels forced to accept unhoused people with no preconditions for behavioral issues during the pandemic have billed the city at least $33 million to date for repairs. In one of those “only in L.A.” stories about homelessness, the City agreed to pay the owners of the Mayfair Hotel more than $11 million for repairs before acquiring it for homeless housing.  Except, as the Times reported, the owners were under no obligation to use the money for the repairs, leaving the City on the hook for those costs as well as the $60 million purchase price. “Bold” must mean paying whatever the asking price may be regardless of benefits. 

In one of the more cynical uses of the term “bold”, a coalition of nonprofits, construction companies and advocates are sponsoring a county-wide measure, the  Affordable Housing, Homelessness Solutions, and Prevention Now initiative. The measure would repeal Measure H, which is due to sunset in 2027; that measure imposes a quarter-cent sales tax on most transactions for homelessness programs. The new initiative increases the rate to a half-cent and makes it permanent.  The measure’s supporters make the same promises for “bold action” we’ve heard before, that an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars will somehow make failed programs successful. One of the measure’s sponsors is HOPICS, an non-profit that received $140 million from LAHSA to subsidize rent for homeless and at-risk tenants, yet did such a poor job, hundreds are now at risk of eviction. We are being asked to entrust even more funds to these and other organizations that have shown little in the way of actual progress.  And as for “bold action”, both LAHSA and the City continue to funnel money to HOPICS, an ironic commentary on Mayor Bass’ promise that she is opening a new era of accountability and performance-based programming. 

Turning back to the Mayor’s State of the City speech and her use of the term “status quo,” as I said, she mentioned it eight times in her speech. In context, she referred to “disrupting the status quo” three times (“disrupt” being the latest in a long line of corporate-style catchphrases for doing one’s job). She claimed she was disrupting the status quo on homelessness, referring to her Inside Safe initiative, which, according to the City’s own report, will have cost about $244,355,690 this fiscal year. The report says 440 people have been permanently housed. That works out to a cost of $555,350 per housed person. The report says permanent housing rates are 23 percent of the program’s clients. The same report says 586 people left the Inside Safe program, including 504 who returned to homelessness, or about 13 percent more people who fell back into homelessness than were housed.  Apparently, “bold” means being willing to incur astronomical costs for temporarily housing a few hundred people, many of whom fall back into homelessness.

During the same speech in which she claimed to be disrupting the status quo, Mayor Bass failed to mention “disrupt” does not apply to doing business with the same service providers over and over.  If one spends an hour or so examining the contract documents published on the City’s homelessness programs website, one may be surprised to see how many of those contracts are granted to the same organizations on a sole source, no-bid basis despite a dearth of meaningful performance metrics. I’ve heard the term “doing the same thing over and over” many times, but I have yet to see it associated with the word “bold”.

Perhaps the most appalling nexus of “boldness” and “shameless” is the County’s recent press release on death rates among the homeless.  In a breathless article touting the “leveling off” of deaths due to overdose, the LA Times’ headline  stated “Deadly overdoses stopped surging among L.A. County homeless people. Narcan could be why”. The article quotes the leaders of the County’s substance abuse programs boasting that overdose deaths did not increase in 2022 (the County’s report runs a little more than a year after the current date). A more objective review of the statistics, the Westside Current article pointed out overdose continues to be the leading cause of death, and the total number of deaths actually increased slightly.  Deaths didn’t decline, merely the paths to them.  If you compare the chart cited in the LAist article on the same subject, you will see its almost an exact mirror image of the chart from last year cited in the LA Alliance for Human Rights’ report on County homelessness and substance abuse programs (page 38).  In short, nothing has improved from last year, but the County is so desperate to justify the continued use of failed Harm Reduction policies, it won’t let the deaths of six people every night get in its way. Reading the Times article, it is more about how Narcan and other anti-overdose drugs have saved the lives of people on the street. The article is an unabashed piece of cheerleading for a policy that isn’t working. Social researcher Michael Shellenberger said in a recent lecture current policies merely “delay death” by providing Narcan to people on the street; eventually Narcan loses efficacy, or it cannot be administered in time, and the addict dies. Providing people with rooms and no support services means people die alone. So “boldness” also means a willingness to adhere to policies that cost unhoused people their lives. 

What would real boldness look like? It would be for a leader in a position to influence policy to stand up in public and say, “What we have been doing isn’t working. It’s not for lack of money or lack of effort. We have been pursuing the wrong policies and measuring the wrong things. We need to hit pause, reassess our position, create real achievable goals, and establish meaningful performance measures to get us there. Everyone can have a seat at the table, but no single voice will control the narrative”. Boldness would truly disrupt the status quo. 

Our leaders have made a conscious choice to pursue semantics over substance. In what can best be described as an Orwellian use of doublespeak, in LA, “bold” means supporting a system that proves its failings every day, financially, in its ineffective programs, and on streets, underpasses, and in parks all over our City. 

Note: This may be my last weekly article for a while. I’ve expanded my volunteer work for the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights, and it will be taking more of my time and effort.  I don’t want to write columns just for the sake of writing them. I will still send columns to CityWatch as I have time. I’d to thank regular readers, and especially CityWatch’s publisher, James Hampton, for the opportunity to share facts and create meaningful discussions around 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.)

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