Saturday, May 25, 2024

Major Mission for L.A.’s New Homeless Services Head: Change Everything

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I don’t have access to Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum’s day planner, but if I did, I think it would read something like this:

Day 1: Take leadership of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, a cumbersome, Godzilla of an agency that everyone agrees is crucially important, but that almost no one seems to understand what it should really be doing.

Day 2-4: Watch closely as LAHSA conducts the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, an annual exercise in which staff and an army of volunteers seek to identify every unhoused person in Los Angeles County, including those living in vehicles, tents, parks, creek beds, abandoned buildings and other out-of-the-way places, and be really accurate, because hundreds of millions of dollars depend on it.

Day 5-323: Get about 17,000 people off the streets and into some form of housing, because that’s how many individuals Karen Bass pledged she would find shelter for in her first year as mayor. She was sworn in on Dec. 11, 2022, and if she doesn’t hit that mark, or get close, then many in Los Angeles will question if anything has changed.

Day 324-plus: Solve homelessness in a county of 10 million people, where housing has been under-built for decades, and where you basically need to sell a kidney every month to afford a market-rate, two-bedroom apartment.

Is this facetious? Yes. But, the thing is, it may not be that far off course for Adams Kellum, who on Monday was tapped to be CEO of LAHSA. If you’re looking for the most Sisyphean job in L.A., this is probably it. Past reports have said that while 209 people in the county each day are housed, another 229 fall into homelessness.

Some of L.A.’s unhoused sheltered in tents across the street from City Hall on Monday as, inside, Mayor Bass announced her new point person on the homeless crisis. (Photo: Jon Regardie)

There was plenty of enthusiasm for Adams Kellum’s hiring announcement at City Hall on Monday morning, with a coterie of officials proclaiming that there is greater potential than ever before—that, since Bass’s inauguration, she has declared a state of emergency and helped create a collaborative and collegial atmosphere, particularly between city and county governments which have historically battled like Tom and Jerry. Everyone sang the praises of Adams Kellum, who garnered attention as the president and CEO of St. Joseph Center, a social services organization where the efforts include helping move people from tents into housing. Adams Kellum has been the point person for Bass’ Inside Safe effort, which got more than 120 people out of encampments in Hollywood and Venice, the first step in a long process to get them permanently housed.

“We are cutting red tape to build housing faster and at a lower cost, and in Dr. Adams Kellum, we are bringing new leadership to LAHSA that is completely aligned with the city and the county’s efforts,” Bass proclaimed.

It all sounds great, and there is reason to hope that things will progress. But over the decades LAHSA has often been lambasted, whether because of uncertainty over its role, or a bureaucratic stew that seems to stoke division. It was just last April that a furor erupted when leader Heidi Marston announced her resignation, following a simmering dispute over her attempts to boost the salaries of LAHSA’s lowest-paid employees.

Some of the harshest criticism throughout the years has come from people inside government, with suggestions that LAHSA be blown up and replaced by a completely new body. Janice Hahn, chair of the County Board of Supervisors, cheered Adams Kellum’s hiring, but made no attempt to disguise her past displeasure.

“I will admit that I had my doubts about LAHSA, and what LAHSA has done,” said Hahn. “And frankly, what our city and county have done so far to address this crisis I believe has not worked, or we haven’t done enough, or something.”

What’s the big problem? It stems in part from the LAHSA fabric. It was created three decades ago as the hoped-for solution to a lawsuit, as the city and county tangled over who should do what when it comes to helping the unhoused. As time passed, LAHSA’s role has shifted and often been misconstrued—many people wanted LAHSA to build housing and provide services, but it long-functioned as more of a “pass-through” agency, acquiring federal and other funding and distributing it to nonprofits that accomplish those aims.

LAHSA orchestrates the Homeless Count, which started Tuesday evening. Over three nights people will spread across the region, seeking to identify how many unhoused individuals live in the county, and to assemble some demographic and other data. At Monday’s event Wendy Greuel, the LAHSA board chair and former Los Angeles City Councilmember and City Controller, said more volunteers are needed and asked people to help conduct the count.

The figures help determine how much outside money flows to Los Angeles. The tally has soared in recent years—the 2022 effort tabulated almost 42,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city of Los Angeles, and more than 69,000 countywide.

There is an overall recognition that when it comes to LAHSA, change is critical. However, there is not yet a clear vision on what that should entail. The message even came from the new boss, who won’t formally take the CEO spot until March 26; in the interim she will work out of Bass’ office on the Inside Safe strategy. She spoke in round terms.

“We need to think and act differently with courage and high standards. We must lock arms to create a new way forward to help our unhoused neighbors and those who teeter on the brink of homelessness,” Adams Kellum stated. “Business as usual is unacceptable.”

Everyone I have spoken with thinks highly of Adams Kellum, and points to her on-the-ground understanding of dealing with homelessness. Still, there remains the question of what will be different. At Monday’s media session, that issue was a central topic, to the point where Hahn returned to the microphone, confident that the nascent Bass era could be new beginning if everybody got onbaord.

“I think we’ve got the tools. I believe we have the money,” Hahn said. “What we need is all of us to have that sense of urgency.”

So what happens next, with nearly 70,000 people living without permanent shelter? This isn’t so much the old idea of building a plane while flying it, but rather changing the pilot while it’s in the air and transmogrifying the entire vessel from a turgid cargo transport vehicle into a stealth fighter that can drop services across the region.

Yet for the buzzword of urgency, there is another word that may be more important, though frustrating as heck: patience.

Bass hit the point in her closing remarks.

“It is gonna take us a minute. Change is not going to happen tomorrow. The point is that we are aligning everything,” she said. “We’re looking at bureaucracy that needs to be set aside, again, all through the frame of mind that this is a man-made disaster that has to be treated like an emergency.”

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