Wheels Are Coming Off the City-County-LAHSA “Love Bus”

This motel in Venice was bought by the city for $10 million to be used for housing the homeless. There are no accurate records to find out how many people have actually been helped.

By TIM CAMPBELL

Recently, we’ve seen several developing stories concerning homelessness programs in LA County.  The County Board of Supervisors ordered audits of the purchase and implementation of the software used for the PIT count, and of LAHSA’s financial operations.  A few days later, a leaked report from LAHSA critical of the City’s anti-camping ordinance set off a firestorm of criticism from City officials.

Last Friday, federal judge David Carter approved a plan for an independent audit of the city’s homelessness programs, including Inside Safe. L.A.’s City Council voted to conduct a performance evaluation of homelessness services it receives from LAHSA.  Finally, City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced plans for a “focused audit” of Inside Safe as well.

All of these events represent quite a change from just a few weeks ago, when the cozy City-County-LAHSA relationship seemed unbreakable.

Despite grumblings from some Council members, Inside Safe and LAHSA continued to receive regular funding.  Progressive officials like Mejia and Council members quickly jumped on the LAHSA report as “proof” LAMC 41.18, the anti-camping ordinance, is a failure. Two supporters of the status quo, Supervisors Hahn and Mitchell, were reelected by wide margins. So, what happened in just a week or so to break up the love affair among the local agencies?

The relationship is falling apart due to a combination of hubris and external pressure.

Foolishly, LAHSA issued a report on the perceived failure of LAMC 41.18, something over which it has no control nor responsibility.  LAHSA’s leaders chose to analyze an ordinance meant to prevent camping near sensitive places in terms of its effectiveness as a housing program, which is not its purpose.

The report used LAHSA’s data, which has always been questionable, to allege encampments cleared under 41.18 were quickly repopulated, and clean-ups interrupted its outreach efforts. LAHSA’s dismal track record for outreach and providing services puts it in no position to criticize other agencies for lack of performance.

By overstepping its authority, LAHSA invited backlash, which it received in spades from City Council members Kerkorian and Blumenfeld, who cited the report’s incomplete and erroneous data.  Coming after LAHSA’s August 2023 admission that it doesn’t track people who exit Inside Safe rooms, and a blistering report from the City Controller about its inability to track shelter usage, its leadership should have concentrated on its own processes before targeting the City.

Of course, LAHSA isn’t the only agency using bad data.

The Mayor’s Inside Safe program has claimed more than 21,000 people have been sheltered, yet because it depends on LAHSA to manage parts of the system, it really has no idea how many people stayed in its facilities. It also doesn’t have good data on shelter utilization.

In the City’s case, it was called out by an external force, the L.A. Alliance for Human Rights. The Alliance took the City to court in 2022 because its homelessness programs were making no progress.

Under the settlement agreement, the City agreed to increase the number of shelter beds available and make periodic progress reports to the court and the Alliance.  By its own admission, the City has met neither its reporting requirements nor its milestones for making more beds available.  The Alliance returned to federal court to ask Judge Carter to assess a financial penalty and require the City to meet its obligations, calling out the City for its lack of progress and questionable statistics.

The County has never been able to show substantive progress on its front either.  The Alliance’s report on County mental health and substance abuse programs details a years-long series of failures, underfunding, and inconsistent statistics.

Despite a steady stream of funding from Measure H and the Mental Health Services Act, County programs have served only a fraction of the unhoused population in need of support services. [Disclaimer: I did volunteer work for the Alliance, including preparing the report I cite].

The common problem the County, LAHSA, and City share is that none can produce reliable evidence their programs are effective, and they know it.  Their best defense has always been to maintain a system of mutual validation, allowing them to avoid accountability by relying on one another to support their claims of success.

For example, the City claims thousands sheltered, using LAHSA’s flawed data to support the claim.

LAHSA, in turn, claims success by saying it partners with the City in providing shelter for the same people (although its numbers rarely match the City’s).

The County says a certain percentage of those sheltered received support services, (but cannot say how effective or consistent those services are).  It’s a circular and self-validating system. But any relationship is only as strong as its weakest link. In this case, the weakest link has always been LAHSA.

Since its formation in 1993, LAHSA has been hobbled by an unclear mission and no authority over the programs it was supposed to coordinate. Each generation of leadership did nothing to challenge its structure or purpose, until it became little more than a check-processing agency for funding non-profit organizations.

Tracking the performance of those organizations simply wasn’t a priority. It was insulated from accountability by an unelected Commission appointed by the City Council and Board of Supervisors. LAHSA has struggled to define its role and relevancy as a multi-jurisdictional agency coordinating the country’s largest homelessness effort.

Perhaps in an attempt to prove its relevancy, or as a preventive measure to once again shift blame from itself, LAHSA issued the report on LAMC 41.18 in November 2023. Even then, the City tried to maintain the illusion of harmony by not publicly acknowledging the report until LAist exposed it.

Once a crack developed in the wall of evasion, it quickly turned into a flood.  The County’s Board of Supervisors joined in by ordering a performance audit of LAHSA’s purchase and implementation of its new PIT count software, followed by a financial audit.

LAHSA and the City started trading barbs over the 41.18 report, revealing just how weak the relationship is. Perhaps as a bit of payback for the 41.18 report, the Council ordered a performance evaluation of LAHSA’s homelessness programs.

Never one to miss an opportunity for good press, City Controller Kenneth Mejia announced he would do a “focused” audit of Inside Safe.  In auditing standards, there is no such thing as a “focused” audit – all audits by their nature should have a clear focus.  Perhaps he meant a limited scope audit, which can be used to concentrate on a particular part of a larger program.  In any case. Mr. Mejia is ill-suited to perform any type of homelessness audit, given his aggressive advocacy of Housing First and his willingness to label anything else as criminalizing poverty.

So now we are left with a flurry of audits and bickering among officials, as each agency tries to shift responsibility for its failings to the others. None has shown any inclination to admit its programs aren’t working.  With each news story, the crack in the relationship gets wider.

And that brings us to the last issue; the failure of mainstream media to hold these agencies accountable. The L.A. Times, either to support its editorial bias towards “progressive” issues, or because it no longer has enough reporters to thoroughly investigate its subjects, has consistently failed to critically assess the stories of success they’re told by local government.

Television reporting rarely takes a deep dive behind its sounds bites on dangerous and spreading encampments; it doesn’t ask why attempts to clear the camps and get their inhabitants into decent shelter don’t work.

It has been left to local and alternative media to expose the issues behind the façade.  LAist, an online news service, published the story about LAHSA’s 41.18 report.

Sue Pascoe at Circling the News published articles about LAHSA’s PIT count gone awry and continues to challenge LAHSA as it changes its story almost daily.

Jaime Paige’s Westside Current has been publishing regular accounts of the L.A. Alliance’s attempts to hold the City accountable in federal court, and posts stories about the real-life impacts of the City’s failing  homelessness policies on the housed and unhoused alike.

CityWatch LA regularly publishes articles on homelessness and housing program costs and performance.  The Times didn’t publish anything about LAHSA’s report until well after LAist, although it did attempt to verify the report’s finding by doing fieldwork of its own (and found many inconsistencies). Perhaps if it had shown equal diligence in previous reporting, more people would have known how badly local governments’ homelessness programs have failed and known sooner.

Only time will tell if the infighting among agencies and the upcoming audits will finally bring some accountability and meaningful change to L.A.’s homelessness programs. We can only hope it does, not only for the sake of taxpayers, but for the 75,500 unhoused people who need a functioning system to receive the help they so desperately need.

Los Angeles City, L.A. County and LAHSA do not have accurate data about how many homeless have been housed/helped.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)

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3 Responses to Wheels Are Coming Off the City-County-LAHSA “Love Bus”

  1. Lynn Miller Hylen says:

    This is sorely needed analysis and reporting on where our tax dollars are being spent, and how (in)effectively. Glad to see CTN being recognized in this article as an independent journalist helping us understand whether these programs are actually helping, and at what cost.

  2. Bruce Schwartz says:

    We need a citizen commission to over see where the money is going and to stop this non sense! Billions of dollars spent with no accountability! I think Palisadian Sharon Kilbrite should be appointed to run this Citizen Oversight Commission! She is a former auditor and will get to the bottom of it.

  3. Cindy Simon says:

    Excellent reporting. Glad to see Sue Pascoe’ CTN recognized 👍 In the end the only solution is development of an institutional housing system wuth service providers

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