In a 3-2 split the L.A. County Board of Supervisors narrowly passed a motion proposing a new master government entity in charge of coordinating a County wide response to the ever spiraling homelessness crisis.

Between LAHSA, DPH, DHS, DMH and DPSS, the list of government agencies currently addressing homelessness in LA County resembles alphabet soup and has led to an uncoordinated response to the crisis rife with department to department finger pointing.

The recommendation to create a new entity with direct responsibility, accountability and authority for handling homelessness comes out of the County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness. It has been met with a polarized response.

Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell voted against the proposal, saying that it will create an unnecessary additional layer of complexity and divert attention addressing the crisis.

“Implementing the recommendations of the Blue-Ribbon Commission on Homelessness as outlined in item 4 on today’s agenda, will cause a thickening of the County bureaucracy and a process of administrative seat-swapping that will divert time, resources and attention from our paramount priority,” stated Kuehl in response to the motion’s passage. 

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-authored the motion with Supervisor Hilda Solis, felt the opposite. They were joined by Supervisor Janice Hahn in supporting the commission’s recommendations. 

“I want to be clear, this is not, and I repeat this is not about creating a new lumbering bureaucracy; It’s about creating a nimble entity that will be directly accountable to this board,” said Barger during a May 2 media briefing on the commission’s recommendations.

Barger and Solis co-authored the initial motion to form the commission with the goal of uniting and streamlining the fight against homelessness across the County. This motion was also controversial and the City of LA declined to participate in the commission, similarly saying that it was an unnecessary distraction and complication. 

The Commission was appointed in July 2021 and released a comprehensive report on the current structure of LA’s homelessness response systems with recommendations for reform in March 2022. It was these recommendations that the Board of Supervisors voted on in the May 3 meeting. 

The cornerstone of these recommendations is the proposal for a new master homelessness entity. Other aspects of the recommendations focus on restructuring the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), allocating Measure H funds to local governments, and creating better systems for tracking data on homelessness.  

As the homelessness crisis has significantly worsened in recent years, LA County, LA City and the LAHSA have drawn criticism for their inability to get a handle on the situation. 

The County and City are both embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed by a coalition of Downtown residents and business owners who allege they are failing their duty to protect public health and safety and provide shelter for unhoused individuals. Last week the Executive Director of LAHSA abruptly quit and in her resignation letter criticized the structure of LAHSA for having huge responsibility over the crisis and little authority over its own funding and direct actions. 

It is the hope of Blue Ribbon Commission members that the newly proposed central entity will have strong authority and direct accountability over the crisis, which will allow it to effectively coordinate the responses of the County’s numerous departments.

“It’s about creating a department that will… coordinate and unify the various efforts of county departments such as the Department of Mental Health, Health Services, Public Health, and Social Services,” said Barger. “It would also be authorized and equipped to act as a centralized housing acquisition unit to get people experiencing homelessness a roof over their head, connected to support services, and off our streets for good.”

As the motion before the Board of Supervisors was simply to support researching and forming a recommendation for the structure of the new entity, the details of this structure remain unclear.

The second recommendation of the commission was to establish a local solutions fund that would direct a portion of the Measure H homeless sales tax fund that was passed by voters in 2017 to smaller cities. This recommendation also advocated for developing a better data tracking method for the expenditure of Measure H funds across all County departments and local governments. 

“The second recommendation is about that collective action; so how do we bring more people into the solution?” said Commission Co-Chair Sarah Dusseault during the media briefing. “All 88 cities need to be a part of the solution and be able to create results at the local level that can help drive regional goals.”

Recommendations three and five pertain to restructuring LAHSA. They propose transitioning certain Measure H responsibilities from LAHSA to the new central authority, changing the appointments on the County’s five seats on the LAHSA Commission, and improving LAHSA’s operations by better defining the responsibilities of its various governing boards. 

Recommendation four is to research consolidating the LAHSA Commission, Continuum of Care Board and Coordinated Entry System into one central body. Recommendation six is to develop policies for better tracking and analysis of data pertaining to the homeless crisis. Recommendation seven is to develop an ‘executive level action team’ uniting decision makers across all areas of the homeless crisis response.

All seven recommendations were passed in a single motion by the Board of Supervisors. While Supervisor Kuehl’s official statement likened the reforms to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Supervisor Barger felt much more optimistic. 

“Initially, there was skepticism about creating a commission to assess homelessness systems. But nothing has been as comprehensive and collaborative as the Blue Ribbon Commission, and its recommendations reflect that commitment,” stated Barger. “It won’t happen overnight, but change starts with taking the first step. I’m ready to get off of the Titanic.”

Clara@smdp.com