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Solving homelessness takes neighbors, not just money, LA leaders say

A woman pushes her cart full of belongings along the street past tents on the sidewalk near skid row in downtown Los Angeles in June.
A woman pushes her cart full of belongings along the street past tents on the sidewalk near skid row in downtown Los Angeles in June.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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Voters in L.A. city and county passed a pair of two ambitious funding plans last year to combat homeless – measures H and HHH.

Together they funnel billions of dollars towards housing, services and prevention. But as most Angelenos can attest, the problem seems to be getting worse – not better.

Even before the sales tax money generated from measure H kicked in last October, L.A. County reported that the homeless population jumped 23 percent between 2016 and 2017

Many residents are seeing the increase on their own block, while some are ending up on the streets themselves.

Take Two interviewed three of the region's leaders for a status report on where the strategy stands and what victories people can point to right now.


interview highlights

People are looking for results. What have politicians done about it?

Garcetti: Securing the funding's the easy part. Now it's about convincing communities that this is everyone's responsibility.

Is that what stops spending — convincing first?

Garcetti: It slows it down. The quicker we can get to "yes" in a neighborhood, the quicker we can build something. And we're doing our part. Not only do we have a plan, government has to lead. So whether it’s opening new bathrooms up, whether it’s saying we’re going to use our city parking lots like we’re doing now, whether it’s looking at [how] we can make sure that what used to take four years to get something built from idea to finishing can now take maybe six months by changing the rules to get this housing built. Those are really important things where government has to lead, but we can't do it without the community buy-in.

What do you say to voters who agreed to be taxed more when it seems the problem is out of control?

Ridley-Thomas: I'm most impressed with these voters. They understand that this problem didn't evolve overnight and they don't expect for it to be fixed overnight...

People's lives are being saved every single day. May I simply say that we are just now ramping up. This is not even a full year of funding at our disposal. When we have the benefit of that, you will see even more progress, more results happening.

When homeless projects are proposed in neighborhoods, there are the NIMBYs who say Not In My BackYard. A lot of times that can stop a project before it can break ground. United Way has a new survey that touches on this.

Buik: Sixty-nine percent of those polled said they support supportive housing for the homeless in their neighborhood. And so we really view our job, in working with the leaders I'm here with, is to activate that silent majority.

To give you a preview, on Friday we'll be launching a campaign called "Everyone In." This is really to activate individuals to be a part of the solution.

A chart provided by United Way LA, showing that a majority of Angelenos would support supportive housing for the homeless built in their neighborhoods.
A chart provided by United Way LA, showing that a majority of Angelenos would support supportive housing for the homeless built in their neighborhoods.
United Way LA

Mayor Garcetti and Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, what does this survey mean to you two, especially when you might hear from angry people at future city and neighborhood council meetings?

Garcetti: It shows how huge the heart of this city is. We can't get this stuff done if people are roadblocks locally...

The question is not whether we bring homeless people to our neighborhood or not. They're there. The question is, "Do you want them on the sidewalk, or do you want them behind four walls?"

When a poll like this says [a majority] of people say it's everyone's problem and we all have to be part of the solution, I think people realize it's not enough to ask for City Hall or ask for our county board of supervisors or others to take care of this. We now have to spend our money where we live to house people.

Ridley-Thomas: We can do this. It's not just in City Hall, it's not just in the Hall of Administration. It's shot through communities from one end of the county to the next.

Geographically, where in the county are you putting the most focus when it comes to this problem?

Ridley-Thomas: The epicenter of the crisis is well-defined – 30 percent or so – in the central areas. That would include Skid Row.

What's interesting about this is the San Fernando Valley, there was a 35 percent uptick. The San Gabriel Valley had a 30-plus percent uptick. In the South Bay, it was 22 percent. Every sector, for the most part, is experiencing an intense climb. We look forward to helping those communities manage these numbers and move to a place where they can more effectively see the quality of life increase.

How should people in L.A. measure whether strategies are working?

Buik: By how many people we're housing at the end of the day, and that the housing is in all 88 communities of the county.

I'm really encouraged — all five [L.A. County] supervisors are on board. We haven't had that in the past. All 15 [L.A. city] council members are moving towards taking their fair share of units. I think that's how we should think about it.

Mayor Garcetti, rumors keep flying that you may run for president in 2020. Do you believe you're ready for the White House if L.A.'s homeless problem isn't solved under your watch by 2020?

Garcetti: I don't care about that question. I care about the homeless...

The number of people we have housed in four years is more than the number of people that were homeless when I started. We've accelerated this incredibly but we netted 40 percent more people out there. In other words, we got better at swimming up the river, but the river got stronger.

I don't wake up on a given day thinking about my legacy or what to look back on. One person at a time, one community at a time is how I look at the homeless problem. And for me, we can win this.

If people are expecting one person, whether that's a mayor or a supervisor or anybody else to solve this, our message is, this isn't about one of us. This is about an entire city coming together.