What could a Biden administration mean for homelessness in LA?

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Right outside the West LA VA, there are more than two dozen identical tents with matching American flags pinned to the outside. Photo by Anna Scott

President-elect Joe Biden has put out a multi-part plan for housing and homelessness policies. What could his proposals mean for Los Angeles, where at least 66,000 people are unhoused throughout the county? KCRW read Biden's plans and talked to LA's top homelessness official for a clearer picture of how the plans could affect LA.

How much does federal homelessness policy impact Los Angeles?

A lot. Many of the funding streams for and housing resources that LA city and county rely on come from the federal government. The federal government also has the ability to tie local funding to particular strategies or requirements.

“The federal government policies have a very large impact on what homelessness looks like and what our response looks like across the whole country,” said Heidi Marston, who heads the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency. Marston is also serving on Biden’s transition team. “I think we've learned some of the true impacts of that during the last administration, particularly in seeing things that have been rolled back.”

For example, Marston said the Trump administration created a rule allowing single-sex homeless shelters to exclude transgender people. Biden has promised to restore the Obama-era requirement that federally-funded shelters provide services according to individuals’ gender identity and don’t discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation. 

Which of Biden’s proposals would have the biggest effect in LA?

Arguably the most significant would be the plan to provide Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible household. Currently, only about one in four families that qualifies for Section 8 receives a voucher. In Los Angeles, the odds are even worse: one in eight, according to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. Those numbers reflect a program that has not kept pace with the need, says Samantha Batko, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

“Eligible people aren't guaranteed assistance,” she said. “Therefore, as the eligibility pool increases, the amount of assistance that's administered doesn’t increase. In addition, we've seen that rents have increased a lot over the last 10 years or so. While the program size stays the same, individual households may be receiving a larger amount of assistance, so less people can be served over time.”

In Los Angeles, where the Section 8 waiting list was closed for more than a decade, more vouchers would prevent more people from falling into homelessness in the first place, according to Marston of the LA Homeless Services Authority. 

The Section 8 expansion would need to go through Congress.

What else is on Biden’s list that could affect LA?

The proposals include a promise that in his first 100 days, Biden would direct his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to review federal housing policies and make sure they follow a “housing first” strategy. That’s a research-backed approach that prioritizes permanent, affordable housing as a first step to solving homelessness, rather than programs with preconditions to housing such as sobriety requirements. (Housing-first programs typically do include services once individuals are placed in homes.) 

Biden also says he’ll set a national goal of ensuring 100% of formerly incarcerated individuals have housing upon reentry. At the city level, that means more federally-funded transitional housing for people exiting the criminal justice system, or potentially a federal ban on employers and landlords asking applicants about their incarceration histories, according to Batko at the Urban Institute.