Homeless housing progress is uneven

Homeless people sleeping in Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles Photo credit: Levi Clancy (CC BY 2.0)

The last time Lee Solomon lived in a house was more than a decade ago. He fell into homelessness somewhere between dealing with a divorce, financial catastrophe, and mental illness.

“I always had issues with depression,” he said. “Serious depression. My own worst enemy.”

His last home was in Woodland Hills. Since losing it, he’s remained in the northwest San Fernando Valley, sometimes sleeping in his car, or more recently at a motel.

On a recent morning, he picked up groceries at the nearby Family Rescue Center in Canoga Park. It’s a small operation, run out of a three-room trailer, offering free food, clothes, and referrals to other assistance agencies.

Gonzalo Gonzalez works the front desk. He sees a lot of people like Solomon, who won’t consider leaving the Valley.

“I had a conversation with a homeless individual this morning,” Gonzalez said. “I asked him why he keeps resisting help that I offer him. He says, ‘because I don’t want to go to...Skid Row.’”

Gonzalez said it’s especially hard to find housing options for people unwilling to leave the neighborhood.

“In the Valley period, there’s really almost zero to no shelters,” he said.

He thought that would change back in 2016, when L.A. voters passed Measure HHH, a bond to fund 10,000 new units of supportive housing throughout the city. Supportive housing units are subsidized apartments for formerly homeless people that come with services such as mental health and medical care.

One year ago, L.A.’s 15 city council members made a promise to help speed up that construction. They each pledged to support 222 of those new housing units in their districts by July 2020. Halfway to that deadline, most councilmembers are at least halfway to their goal. Altogether they’ve approved about 4,000 new units of supportive housing -- more than they set out to. But the distribution is lopsided. Districts that already have a lot of affordable housing, like those encompassing downtown and South L.A., have exceeded their goals. Meanwhile other areas -- most notably the two districts covering the northwest Valley -- are lagging.

“We’ve seen mixed progress on the geographic diversity of where this housing is being built,” said Tommy Newman, head of public affairs for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, a nonprofit tracking the progress of the so-called “222 pledge.”

Part of the idea behind the pledge was to break through L.A.’s longtime pattern of clustering homeless services and low-income housing in only a handful of areas. Spreading the housing throughout the city is also imperative because L.A.’s roughly 52,000 homeless people live in every district, Newman said.

“Folks experiencing homelessness most often want to stay in the communities where they [are],” he said. “So it's not just the right thing to do to build supportive and affordable housing in every community in this city. It's also a key component of how we'll actually solve homelessness.”

Only one council district hasn’t lined up any new units: District 12, west of the 405, encompassing Chatsworth and Northridge. The councilmember there, Mitch Englander, resigned in December to work for a sports and entertainment company. A spokesman for Englander and his temporary replacement, Greig Smith, said in an email that the slow progress is not related to the turnover, and that “the council office is not a developer.”

Spokesman Colin Sweeney said that one supportive housing project fell through when the developer pulled the plug, and none of the district’s city-owned properties are zoned for apartment buildings. He also noted that Englander helped to open a 90-bed shelter in Northridge in 2014, as well as a supportive housing facility for veterans in 2013.

Next door to District 12 is District 3, which includes Reseda, Tarzana, and Woodland Hills. There, Councilmember Bob Blumenfield has only approved 13 new apartments. Blumenfield says the 222 pledge is only one arbitrary metric of his work around homelessness.

He’s working on opening a new shelter, he’s helped to expand homeless outreach, and he’s working on designating some parking lots for people living in cars to stay overnight. Blumenfield’s district also has fewer homeless people than many parts of the city -- about 600, according to the latest count, compared to the 7,000 who live in the district around downtown.

Blumenfield says affordable housing developers look at demand just like any other homebuilder.

“They’re not knocking down my door,” he said. “They’re not even knocking on the door.”

He pointed out that technically, the 222 pledge was not to actually build that many units, but rather to support them.

“It's not pledging that you're going to be able to create this number of units because that's out of our control,” he said.

Credits

Reporter:
Anna Scott