Prominent business leaders are putting their weight behind a plan that they say could make a major dent in homelessness in Los Angeles County, embracing a strategy that will face significant political opposition.
The blueprint they plan to unveil Tuesday seeks to put a permanent roof over the heads of the most entrenched street dwellers, then provide them as much counseling and treatment as they will use.
Because the chronically homeless take up a disproportionate share of resources, the plan's authors argue that focusing on housing them will ultimately free up services for the many more people who need only temporary help to get back on their feet.
"For too long, Los Angeles County has been the homeless capital of the nation," Jerry Neuman and Renee White Fraser, co-chairs of the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness, wrote in an introductory letter. "It need not be this way."
Representatives of 22 organizations — including JP Morgan Chase, NBC Universal and Caltech — formed the task force in September 2009 after United Way of Greater L.A. approached the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce about engaging business leaders to find solutions to homelessness.
The task force spent 10 months meeting with local and national experts and visiting programs that have reduced homelessness in cities such as Denver and Santa Monica.
The key, task force members say, will be getting dozens of local institutions unified on the project. The group is asking county and city authorities, social service organizations, law enforcement agencies and faith-based groups to sign on to a detailed plan they call "Home for Good" by Dec. 1.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who initiated a pilot version of the housing-first strategy known as Project 50, said he gave the plan high marks.
"It is ambitious. It is doable," he said. "I hope the Board of Supervisors will endorse the plan."
But the approach is controversial. Most chronically homeless people have serious physical, mental or substance abuse problems. Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich has complained about spending tax dollars to provide housing to individuals who continue to abuse drugs and avoid treatment, calling the approach "warehousing without healing."
"The supervisor won't agree to any plan to deal with homelessness that does not have mandatory mental health and substance abuse treatment as a component," said Antonovich's spokesman, Tony Bell.
Neuman, a partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, said local authorities spend $650 million a year on the chronically homeless, who are heavy users of hospital emergency rooms, jail cells and other crisis services. The figure accounts for about three-quarters of annual spending on homeless services, although the chronically homeless make up only a quarter of 48,000 or more people sleeping on the streets, in cars and in shelters on any given night in Los Angeles County.
"What we found is that if you can take those people into permanent supportive housing, you can save about 40% of those dollars," Neuman said, citing two local studies.
Proponents of the housing-first approach argue that people are more likely to stick to treatment regimens when they don't have to worry about where they will be sleeping. And if they relapse, social workers know where to find them.
When Project 50 staff found 63-year-old George Givens on the streets of skid row, he had untreated schizophrenia. But since moving into a downtown studio apartment, he collects his medicine every morning from a nurse practitioner who works in the next building.
It took the staff more than two years to persuade Givens to come in off the streets, where he had survived for a decade by collecting cans, cardboard and bottles to recycle. He said others who offered to help him had let him down. But he said he does not miss "being out in the rain and the cold and the pickpockets."
The county program, which initially targeted the 50 people most likely to die on the streets of skid row, has housed 107 people since January 2008. Of the 68 housed in the first two years, 51 remain in the program, seven died, four were incarcerated and six dropped out.
By reallocating an average of $230 million in existing resources each year, the task force argues that by 2015, it would be possible to house all of the estimated 12,000 people who have been living on county streets for more than a year. Half would be accommodated in existing units of supportive housing, which turn over at a rate of 15% to 20% a year. The rest would be provided through new construction, rehabilitation of existing buildings and the creation of mobile teams to provide services to scattered sites.
An additional 6,000 newly homeless veterans could also be housed, using resources from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the task force
Helen Berberian, Antonovich's social services deputy, questioned whether it was fair to set aside housing subsidies for the chronically homeless, when other vulnerable people had been waiting years for them.
"The sad thing is that we just don't have enough housing resources, period," she said.
The plan also relies on communities to share not only data collected on their homeless populations but also the burden of housing the county's homeless.
"I think NIMBYism is one of the greatest issues we are going to be tackling," Neuman said. "But the reality is we can create a system which has a safety net for all those people and ends chronic homelessness, so nobody has to be on the streets for a year or longer."