CITY HALL — The City Council got more than it bargained for in a study session on homelessness Tuesday when Human Services officials suggested it might be time to end a long-standing relationship with a coalition of homeless service providers in Los Angeles County.
Santa Monica belongs to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Administration, a joint-powers authority between the county and 85 of the 88 cities it holds.
LAHSA leads a “continuum of care,” a long-term plan to address the needs of the homeless in the region. As the lead agency, LAHSA applies for federal dollars from the Housing and Urban Development Department, which it then distributes amongst member agencies.
Santa Monica signed up for the original joint-powers authority in 1993, but has come into conflict with the lead agency over restrictions in housing vouchers and requirements for tracking those served, causing city officials to evaluate if it would be more effective to apply for federal money directly.
“That we may want to withdraw from LAHSA is a huge step,” said Mayor Richard Bloom. “This sounds pretty serious.”
Officials say that some funding is being withheld from Santa Monica because of the affluence of its population, ignoring the number of homeless its programs serve.
“We’re especially concerned about new funding criteria,” Setareh Yavari, Santa Monica’s human services administrator, told the council Tuesday. “They penalize those jurisdictions such as Santa Monica that are investing in solutions.”
According to data gathered by the Human Services Department, 70 percent of the homeless that take advantage of Santa Monica’s programs come from outside the city.
If city departments help a regional population, LAHSA shouldn’t restrict money based on purely local numbers, Yavari argued.
“We get more, but we also contribute more,” she said.
A second point of contention was the HUD-approved database that City Hall uses to track homeless data.
Although LAHSA was aware of city officials choosing the system and using it, recently the agency has demanded that Santa Monica switch to the database used by LAHSA, said Human Resources Manager Julie Rusk.
“Now LAHSA is trying to say, ‘We’ve changed our mind, and you need to be putting data into our system,’” Rusk said. “They’re changing the rules of the game.”
The penalty? Further restriction of housing vouchers.
The convergence of issues caused Yavari to announce Tuesday that the department was beginning to “reconsider its relationship” with LAHSA.
If Santa Monica leaves LAHSA, it would operate as a separate continuum of care, which would mean that it would apply directly to HUD for the funding it currently receives through the other administration.
Although Rusk doesn’t anticipate getting more money or vouchers by going directly to the federal government, it might prevent resources from being chipped away.
“It’s about what’s equitable, and what’s fair,” Rusk said. “We’ve invested a lot of local resources, and do right by the people we’re trying to help and right by people in our community who have had a disproportionate impact in dealing with homelessness.”
The announcement seemed to surprise council members, who hadn’t expected such forceful words in an update on homeless programs.
At this point, no decisions have been made, and city officials will be figuring out how a change in funding would affect other organizations that provide services both inside and outside the city.
“We’re very concerned about not putting the service providers in an untenable position where they’re trying to work both for the city and LAHSA,” Rusk said. “It’s about getting homeless people housed. We don’t want to get caught up in a technical debate.”
A representative from LAHSA said that the organization did not have a representative at the council meeting, and could not comment on what was said there.
“LAHSA is charged with the responsibility of making decisions for all cities in the continuum, which includes, of course, Santa Monica,” said Peter Griffiths, spokesman for LAHSA. “The city of Santa Monica has been and continues to be a strong partner in our efforts to end homelessness, and we are always ready to address any concerns or challenges brought to us directly.”
While no one yet knows what the future of Santa Monica will look like, either as a member of LAHSA or as its own continuum of care, one part of the mission will stay the same.
“I feel very committed to encouraging communities all over Los Angeles to step up and do more of their fair share,” Rusk said. “We cannot solve this problem in Santa Monica. It was not created here, and it’s not going to be solved here.”