Los Angeles fights for immediate homeless funding, faces obstacles

(Photo Credit: Breezy Baldwin via Flickr Creative Commons)

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council approved placing a $1.1 billion bond on the November ballot to fund homeless services for the coming decade. Advocates say it’s a good start – if voters approve it. Other measures are on the table, but face an uphill climb. A proposed millionaire tax for Los Angeles County that would generate more than $200 million a year can’t get on the ballot due to opposition from state lawmakers in Sacramento. Other proposals, including a sales tax have been floated.

Homeless advocates and city lawmakers both say however the city finds the money, it has to be soon, because the homeless situation has become untenable. FSRN’s Larry Buhl has more from Los Angeles.

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On Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, about 20 volunteers with the Monday Night Mission distribute food to homeless residents. It’s early in the month, before their food assistance dollars run out, so the line is shorter – only about a hundred people tonight. It’s nothing fancy. A sandwich, bottled water, a banana.

Volunteers shout the name of the person as they approach the table on the sidewalk as a sign of respect. They say it’s the only bit of dignity they might get all day.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an estimated 47,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles on a given night, living in shelters, in tents and more recently, in their cars. That’s an 11 percent jump over 2015.

One contributing factor to the skyrocketing rate of homelessness is the cost of living. A study by the National Association of Home Builders shows that LA now has the second least affordable housing in the nation, just below San Francisco. And wages are stagnant in LA – as they are in many major U.S. cities.

A recent poll by the United Way showed that homelessness – not crime, not traffic – is Angelinos’ top concern in 2016. But the public is divided about what to do about it. Many voters are opposed to new construction to keep up with population growth, though polling shows they may be open to a small property tax increase to fund homeless services. And in the beachside community of Venice, where tech communities have driven up rents, advocates say residents appear more interested in moving the homeless out of sight.

At his State of the City address in May, Mayor Eric Garcetti touted the city’s efforts to reduce the number of homeless veterans, and he earmarked $138 million in the city budget to address general homelessness.

“The city and the county are fighting this battle hand in hand. Today, we have tripled the number of outreach workers across the county,” Garcetti said. “Today, for the first time in city history, we are using general fund dollars to cover housing vouchers. Today, we have a historic plan that will get people into homes more quickly than ever.”

But while $138 million is a start, much more is necessary given the scope of the problem. Last month, the city council agreed to put a $1.2 billion bond proposal on the November ballot to provide housing. And at the county level, the board of supervisors recently proposed a ballot measure to tax personal income above $1 million a year; that would generate about $243 million annually for homeless services. But California law says county-wide tax proposals require approval by the state lawmakers, and the legislature and Governor Brown are against the tax, even though it’s popular with Angelinos.

Peggy Lee Kennedy of the Venice Justice Coalition says both proposals are more PR stunt than solution. She says that putting any tax increase before the voters, even if the measures pass, wouldn’t address the immediate needs.

“This is a disaster, it is a disaster. We need trailers, we need services, we need showers, we need kitchens, we need places for people to be during the day,” Kennedy said. “And we don’t need police giving them tickets for sitting on the sidewalk when they don’t have another place to be.”

Kennedy and other advocates want both the city and county to open up empty facilities for emergency housing, but they admit the homeless problem might be too big for the city and county to handle. They think the state and federal government should step in.

Mel Tillekeratne rents luxury high-rise apartments downtown by day. By night, five nights a week, he organizes the Monday Night Mission, which he founded five years ago. Lately, he’s advocated for state and federal intervention. He wants the governor to issue a state of emergency in Los Angeles.

“An emergency declaration, on one side, it removes a lot of red tape to building housing. On the second part, it gives immediate access to a $500 million fund called the economic uncertainty fund,” Tillekeratne noted. “The billion dollar bond or the millionaire tax, those take years to accumulate. But the $500 million economic uncertainty fund is immediate. We could tap into it as soon as it’s declared.”

While the economic uncertainty fund is state-run, an emergency declaration would also open up billions of dollars in federal funds.

But the U.S. government has been more hindrance than help in the struggle for emergency relief for homelessness, at least in large coastal cities. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now advocates a housing-first model. That model it allocates federal money to build affordable units where homeless people can settle permanently.

Tillekeratne says HUD’s long-term approach is ineffective for Los Angeles.

“In Utah, when your total homeless population is 12,000 people, it works. You can put everyone into housing. And in a place like Utah there is space to build housing,” Tillekeratne  said. “In California, we have NIMBYism [Not In My Backyard]. Even if we have money for housing, people don’t want it built in their backyard. That’s why it takes so long to build housing projects.”

Homeless advocates agree that underlying measures to boost incomes and keep rents from spiking would help slow down the increase in homelessness. But they say long-term planning and immediate help for homeless residents are not mutually exclusive. Tillekeratne is organizing a caravan to Sacramento on July 30 to demand state lawmakers allow LA county to put a millionaire’s tax on the ballot, and to pressure Governor Brown to declare a state of emergency, a measure that would also help other California cities struggling with homelessness.

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