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The authority to solve

April 03, 2006

LATE LAST MONTH, the county Board of Supervisors announced a $100-million plan to improve services for the homeless on skid row and beyond. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was barely consulted about the plan, and he didn't know when it was being unveiled. But he can hardly complain because in December,

when he held a news conference to announce a record homeless grant from the federal government, he waited until the last minute to tell the county, leaving too little time for most supervisors to make the event. The mayor's office announced a new homelessness czar a few weeks ago; the county followed with a similar appointment a week later.

Welcome to homeless politics, L.A.-style. Despite growing momentum and gathering consensus for a solution, infighting between the city and the county remains. The mayor and the supervisors need to start looking for more ways to cooperate, not compete. One place they can begin is the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Los Angeles has never had a better chance to alleviate its homelessness problem, the worst in the nation. But its success will depend on its leaders working together. Of course, the city and county have always had a hard time doing just that. But on this issue, they have to. When it comes to the homeless, the city controls the housing dollars and the county pays for support services such as mental health and hospital care. Most people agree that the best way to help the homeless is to give them housing, then offer on-site services such as drug and alcohol counseling and primary healthcare.

So the only solution here is a unified one -- not piecemeal plans that are more about scoring points with voters than about improving the lives of the homeless. The county and the mayor should not be coming up with separate homeless strategies; that is a recipe for failure.

It's not as if it's a new point. In 1993, after the city and the county sued each other over which one was ignoring the homeless more (answer: both were), they reached an out-of-court agreement to share homeless services. The result was the Homeless Services Authority, which theoretically oversees most of the region's homeless contracts.

But the authority has always been treated like an ugly stepchild. The city and the county have barely funded it, making it little more than an office that passes along federal dollars. (Until recently, both gave almost no general funds to the authority.) Now, in a dizzying case of circular reasoning, some county officials are saying the authority should be disbanded or weakened, if that's possible, because it doesn't get enough funding or attention to be effective.

It's a terrible idea. The authority could be invaluable in coming up with a long-term regional strategy to address the homeless problem. It could also help the public hold officials accountable for what they do (or don't do) about homelessness

But timing is crucial. This moment of political will is bound to fade, as will the city's and the county's willingness to open up their wallets. Here's what needs to change:

Reorganize the homeless authority's board. Today it is run by a 10-person commission, with five mayoral appointees and five county appointees. But none of them has any real power. The commission should include the mayor, a county supervisor, the county's head of mental health services and a financial guru like the county's chief administrative officer. The City Council, members of the public or both could fill the other spots.

Define the authority's roles. The authority needs the ability to devise a regional plan, which it now is incapable of making. And it must have the power to coordinate services in various areas and among various agencies. It should be involved in improving plans for discharging at-risk people leaving hospitals, jails and foster-care programs. It should also coordinate a thoughtful strategy about where new affordable housing should go.

Upgrade the authority's technology. Twenty-five years after the advent of the personal computer, too many homeless-service providers still use paper to track homeless clients. It is time to digitize the system, as other cities have done, and make it more efficient. (The authority has a small system in place, but it only reaches 10% of providers.) Then the authority can establish better standards and ways to measure them. How many clients of various providers get a job? How many end up in housing for more than a year?

Increase the authority's budget. Most of the money the city and the county have recently announced is one-time cash, and it isn't necessarily going through the authority. The authority needs more permanent funding so its budget isn't affected by inevitable cutbacks. The best hope is to secure money from Proposition 63, the mental-health tax that could bring $200 million a year to the area. A percentage of those funds should go to the homeless, which isn't guaranteed now.

Involve more cities in the authority. In 1993, Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale all opted out of the authority. They coordinate their own plans and compete with the rest of the area for federal dollars. This makes no sense. Homelessness is a regional problem, and it will take regional involvement to solve it.

According to the most recent count, there are 88,000 homeless people in the region -- nearly 1% of the county's population. Many sleep in their cars. Others bounce from shelter to shelter, hoping each night that there is a bed available. The worst-off sleep on skid row, a tragedy that we have allowed to happen right before our eyes. Will we improve their lot? Or are we kidding ourselves?

Momentum and money are encouraging. But unless the elected officials of Los Angeles work together and come up with a unified, sensible strategy to battle homelessness, it all could be for naught.

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