Exit interview: Peter Lynn of the LA Homeless Services Authority

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Peter Lynn at his office. Photo by Anna Scott.

The executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, announced today that he'll leave the city-county agency at the end of this month. The departure is voluntary, he says. Lynn has led LAHSA for five years. During that time, the agency's budget and size have grown more than fivefold, largely because of a sales tax LA County voters passed in 2017 to raise an additional $355 million a year for homeless services. LAHSA has faced criticism since then over whether it's equipped to handle the new infusion and how it has used the resources.

Lynn recently sat down with KCRW reporter Anna Scott to discuss his departure. *This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Why are you leaving?

Peter Lynn: It's been five years, and these have been good, solid, but very hard years. I think the agency is stronger than it's ever been, and I'm ready to try my hand at new endeavors, and I'm frankly a little tired.

Is there anything more specific you can say about what has been hard?

Homelessness in Los Angeles is at crisis proportions. And the housing affordability here has been driving people into homelessness at unprecedented levels. And you know, frankly, we don't have the resourcing yet commensurate to the need. We've voted in new measures, and we are not keeping pace with the number of people falling into homelessness at this point. The expectations are very high, as they should be. There's a lot of strain. We've all grown very, very fast. This agency is five times the size it was when I got here. Over five years, we've been able to permanently house more than 80,000 people out of homelessness. And there are still more people on the sidewalks.  

Is one of the challenges of the job that you essentially answer to 20 politicians?

L.A. is complex. The five supervisors each have a perspective, and they're very, very focused on this issue. The mayor's office obviously is enormously focused on this and has been working on it closely. And there are 15 city council offices, each of which have significant constituent concerns, and they're all focused on this issue. So you're right, there's a plurality of views. And we try to lift up: What are the actual solutions? And so an entity like LAHSA that sits in the center between the City of L.A. and the County of L.A., it's a complex role.

Some people may wonder: You're the head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, you've been there for five years. In that time, homelessness has gone up. How can you look at that and say that it's anything but a failure? 

People are not falling into homelessness because of LAHSA. People are falling into homelessness because Los Angeles has really under-built housing. There are big structural factors. The key is housing affordability, and we have not built enough housing. 

So in the 1970s, we stopped building housing units commensurate to the number of households in L.A. and California, and we never looked back. You can't let that happen for decades and expect housing to stay affordable for people. We have the least affordable housing market in America. 

LAHSA has a responsibility to build out -- and we have built out -- a systemic infrastructure to address homelessness. And we are still quite outgunned by this by this problem and by this crisis. I would say it's a collective failure to get to the root of homelessness.

What do you point to as your your mark on this agency? What do you think that your big accomplishments have been? Are there mistakes that you've made, and things that you've learned?

I think that the biggest mark has been in really transforming where LAHSA is the driver of a system, as opposed to a funder of a collection of programs. We were very much positioned as a contract administrator, literally just you tell us what you want to fund, and we'll fund it. 

So basically, rather than just taking city and county money and then distributing contracts as directed, you've become more involved with policy and trying to push things along. 

I think that's right. The purpose of of an organization like LAHSA is to really reframe to the funders: What are the solutions? To focus the attention of folks on housing. Housing is the solution to homelessness. So those are the kinds of things that we've worked to inform both the city and the county and their strategies reflect that. 

Has one of the frustrating parts of the job been seeing how much this lack of housing, and specifically affordable housing, is really at the heart of the crisis? LAHSA is not a housing developer. Does that put you in a tough position? For example, one of the things that LAHSA has scaled up in the last couple of years is outreach. But...there are a lot of outreach workers who mean well but don't have a lot to offer. 

It's one of the frustrations of addressing homelessness. I wouldn't say it's a frustration of the job. We have worked to lift that up. We've focused on housing affordability as we have educated people and reframed the narrative on homelessness. I think that is one thing that we have done reasonably successfully on the back end … and I wouldn't say there's no permanent housing. I would say it's hard. The challenge is just that the available resources, the available slots, is not equal to the number of people who are essentially needing them.

What do you want to know more about?

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Jenna Kagel

Reporter:
Anna Scott