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Union Rescue Mission CEO: 'In focusing on one approach, LA's left thousands homeless'

A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.
A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.

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As Los Angeles has increasingly focused on moving the homeless population off the street into permanent supportive housing where services are often provided on-site, advocates argue that the move may be sapping resources from fixing short-term issues.

A recent Los Angeles Times piece titled "Is the shift to permanent housing making L.A.'s homelessness problem even worse?" asks whether this focus is diverting money away from social services and transitional housing, turning many who could be helped by short-term housing back onto the street.

AirTalk guest host Patt Morrison spoke with homeless advocates about the tradeoffs, and listeners shared their personal experiences with homeless services.

Anita Nelson, CEO of a nonprofit community organization in Skid Row, said her organization is dedicated to having a “variety of housing that meets the need of a varied population.”

Union Rescue Mission's Rev. Andy Bales said he agrees with that approach, but feels part of the problem is that policymakers view homeless services as a zero-sum game. He said the singular focus on permanent housing — which he feels is sometimes politically motivated — has caused visits to his mission to skyrocket.

Interview highlights

What’s the best way to house the homeless?

Anita Nelson: Permanent supportive housing is the priority, and housing the chronically homeless is a high priority. But the population that is homeless is very diverse. I think it requires a multi-layered approach in addressing the variety of needs that are out there to help homeless individuals.

The approach is to have a variety of types of housing. The priority is housing...those individuals who have been homeless for a long period of time. But there’s also a need for housing that’s more short-term to help that individual who just really needs a place to get stabilized for a couple of months until they reconnect with their families or get a job.    

Are policy makers looking at this as zero sum?

Andy Bales: Unfortunately they are. [Housing and Urban Development] has said, "We know everything’s needed, but we’re only going to fund permanent supportive housing.” Our city especially — and county — have not come up with any other funding to meet the needs of people who are on the streets.

We focused on the few, and we’ve left now over 30,000 people to suffer the devastation of homelessness on the streets. We have 500 more people under our roof right now then we did at this time last year. That’s because funding went away and shelters, and transitional housing, and domestic abuse shelters closed.

Spencer, an AirTalk caller in Canoga Park who volunteers distributing supplies to the San Fernando Valley’s homeless population views permanent supportive housing as one of many solutions.

I think permanent supportive housing is crucial. But in a city with such a vast homeless population such as Los Angeles, no one size fits all solution is going to work, but we shouldn’t not provide permanent supportive housing.

We need to have a multi-tiered approach that definitely takes care of those who can get off of their feet, supports those who only need a little bit of assistance, and support the chronically homeless.

These interviews have been edited for clarity. You can hear the full interview at the top of this post. 


Anita Nelson, CEO of SRO Housing Corp.

Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission