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Where To Go With Homeless System Governance
During a recent conversation with one of our non-profit service-providing partners, we heard something that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. We were discussing the low morale in and high turnover in the homeless services workforce, and they said “you know, it’s not just about COVID and low pay. People are frustrated with competing directives from organizations and elected officials. There are so many priorities, there are no priorities.”
Cue governance – shorthand for how we organize ourselves to set priorities and make decisions.
Since before the pandemic, L.A.’s elected officials and civic leaders have been consumed with conversations about homeless sector governance. They’ve written four separate reports on the topic and launched a commission to study the issue and make recommendations. As one report puts it: “governance is having a moment in Los Angeles.” But that moment has lasted more than two years. That’s unacceptable.
Holding the governance question perpetually open, hoping a new analysis or report will uncover the perfect structure, has veered into indulgent introspection and is eroding our ability to make a collective impact with an inspired workforce on the most urgent issue in Los Angeles.
SO WHERE DO WE GO WITH HOMELESS SYSTEM GOVERNANCE?
First, we agree that governance is important, but the time for further study is over—the indecision is harming the work. Public officials are sitting on four well-crafted, thoughtful reports (which we’ve summarized below). The LA County Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness (BRCH) has held 13 meetings and is planning six more with recommendations starting to emerge. In our opinion, public officials have ample information to make a better, albeit imperfect, decision very soon.
Second, Los Angeles is already one of the most complex jurisdictions in the country, so governance decisions should prioritize decreasing complexity, not increasing it. A better governance model should pass three key litmus tests:
- Will strategies and priorities be clearer, more coordinated, and more consistent?
We support reducing the number of commissions, councils, workgroups and aligning the remaining entities around a clear purpose with clear decision rights, as outlined in the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) report. For our part at United Way, we’ve already agreed to suspend the Regional Homeless Advisory Council (RHAC). We also see value in better aligning the work between LAHSA and other entities that impact homelessness. LAHSA is the Continuum of Care lead—a critical role—and should function as such. However, several reports acknowledge that ending homelessness depends on structures and systems that LAHSA does not (and need not) control. Therefore, we support the creation of a clearer, more coordinated regional or county framework where organizations that influence homelessness, such as housing development, healthcare/behavioral health delivery, criminal justice, child welfare, education, and employment, all have an equal and accountable seat at the table. That table, and the potential creation of a new County Entity, should not come at the demise, defunding, or duplication of LAHSA.
- Will contracting and procurement get easier for providers?
Conversations about governance and LAHSA typically veer into conversations about operating and administrative challenges (e.g., contracting, procurement, communications, etc.). While those challenges are real and important to our provider partners, they are highly correlated with the rapid expansion of resources over a very short time and should not be conflated with an inherent flaw in governance. Therefore, governance solutions should not exacerbate administrative challenges. For example, we do not recommend increasing complexity by dismantling LAHSA entirely and creating mini-Continuums of Care for each city (one option in the LA City report). Imagine the complexity of providers having to manage grants and contracts with nearly 90 jurisdictions with 90 different approaches to homelessness.
- Will scarce resources be optimized for impact?
We know some smaller cities want measure H[i] money going to the local jurisdictions relative to their share of revenue, and we understand their frustrations. But a diffuse model would further frustrate our ability to set coherent regional priorities and make consistent decisions. It could also exacerbate racial inequities and siphon scarce resources into administrative overhead as those jurisdictions establish the infrastructure to oversee contracts and manage procurements. The establishment of a new County “entity” runs a similar risk and, if created, should minimize its reliance on scarce funding intended for impacting homelessness.
Finally, if public officials want LAHSA to be accountable for what’s happening in our shelters and on the streets in their cities, then those same officials need to empower LAHSA to lead the way. That requires giving LAHSA the authority to craft policies and spend its resources in accordance with agreed-upon strategies and informed by its own data and expertise. If public officials are nervous about LAHSA’s ability to be a system administrator with the authorities to match, then there is an immediate pathway available via the existing Joint Powers Authority (JPA)[ii] agreement that could be exercised: appoint themselves to the Commission. The Supervisors could self-appoint to the five County seats, and the Mayor’s five appointees could be the Mayor, City Council President, Chair of Homelessness & Poverty Committee, Chair of Housing Committee, and the City’s Chief Administrative Officer. This would be the fastest way to improve governance and coordination amongst our local leaders while other reforms advance.
Just as LAHSA will not end homelessness on its own, neither will governance. It is time to take the best ideas from these reports and commission meetings, pick a course of action, and move forward.
WHAT’S IN THE REPORTS?
The LA County Report and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness
In February 2020, the County Board of Supervisors (BOS) directed the Chief Executive Office to conduct an analysis of the current structure and function of LAHSA and report back with recommendations to improve its governance structure, performance, accountability, and transparency. One year later, the CEO released its final 17-page report which includes changes that would require amendments to the City/County JPA and other changes that do not. If the County were to amend the JPA, they could change or expand the LAHSA Commission by increasing County representation and adding representatives from smaller cities. They could also modify LAHSA’s operations by putting clearer expectations and accountability into LAHSA’s Scope of Work, require more frequent financial reporting, or create a sub-structure to coordinate LAHSA-funded services in each Service Planning Area (SPA).[iii] Without changing the JPA, the County could shift Measure H funding away from LAHSA and move it to a new or existing County department. In response to this report, the Board of Supervisors established a Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness in July 2021 and charged them with conducting a comprehensive review and making recommendations for a new governance model. The BRCH was supposed to consist of 12 members, but L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez declined the four appointments allotted to the City of LA. Since its inception, there have been 13 meetings overseen by the eight appointed commissioners. The BRCH is scheduled to hold six more meetings through April 2022, and a recent presentation suggests they are considering the establishment of a new “County Entity” and/or eleven possible options for streamlining or dissolving LAHSA. As of this writing, it is unclear when the recommendations will be finalized, how prescriptive they will be, and what impact they will ultimately have, if any.
The LAHSA Report
Also in February 2020, the LAHSA Commission formed an Ad-Hoc Committee on Governance. That committee empowered Ann Oliva, a consultant from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, to review documents, interview stakeholders, and publish her recommendations in a 20-page Report on LAHSA Governance, which was released the next year. The report’s main headline is that three things are true about LAHSA. First, as LAHSA transitions from a grants administrator to a system administrator, the organization should continue improving its own internal operations – especially since unprecedented rapid growth has strained its contracting, procurement, human capital, and communications capacities. Second, LAHSA could execute on its role as a system administrator more effectively if it was given more authority and flexibility (from the City and County) to spend money strategically and if there was clearer purpose, decision rights, and less duplication across inter-related homeless governance bodies (e.g., LAHSA Commission, CoC Board, CES Policy Council, Lived Experience Advisory Board, Regional Homeless Advisory Council, and other workgroups). Third, no matter how effective LAHSA becomes as a system administrator, the region needs a coherent vision and collaboration strategy for critical components that fall outside of LAHSA’s span of control (e.g., the supply of affordable housing, employment and wage growth, the availability of health and behavioral health care, and the adequacy of the social safety net to prevent inflows into homelessness). Finally, the report emphasizes the importance of dismantling institutional barriers that perpetuate racial disparities and systemic racism affecting Black people experiencing homelessness.
The City of L.A. Report
In March 2020, the LA City Council instructed the Chief Legislative Analyst (CLA) to evaluate the LAHSA governing structure and assess other models for the delivery of homeless services. In response, the CLA reviewed documents, interviewed stakeholders, and released a 75-page report in May 2021. The report provides a lot of background information on the history, context, and structure of the homeless system in L.A. It also lays out three options for how homeless governance could be reformed. The first option is to dismantle LAHSA as the CoC lead and replace it with smaller regional coordinating entities, with the City as a stand-alone CoC. The second option is to transfer coordinating authority to a Metro-style agency authorized by the State. The third option is to reform LAHSA itself by changing the configuration of its appointed commissioners, streamlining decision-making components, and realigning its coordinating functions. The City Council has never voted to adopt one of these specific governance models, but the City has begun working with the California Policy Lab to help refine and improve data and metrics that inform how homelessness is being managed across jurisdictions in L.A. (which was one of the recommendations in the report).
The Committee for Greater LA Report
After the onset of the pandemic and the racial justice uprising in 2020, a group of local leaders led by the CEO of the Weingart Foundation, Miguel Santana, formed The Committee for Greater LA to focus on building a more equitable and inclusive Los Angeles. In May 2021, they released a 62-page report. The report was written by Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State LA., who interviewed elected officials, service providers, national experts, and people experiencing homelessness. He diagnoses LA’s homeless sector as having “too much scattered and freelancing leadership, too much data, not forged around outcomes; and too much informal and unaligned coordination.”[iv] In response, he recommends the creation of a new, independent, non-profit organization led by a CEO with an executive board comprised of elected officials from the region. This new organization, called “The Center,” would act as a “magnetic force that can draw our disparate best efforts to a common mission” by building regional and inter-agency consensus (and credibility) around strategic plans, goals, outcomes, policies, accountability, and public communications.[v] Unlike the LAHSA report, Dr. Sonenshein does not discuss internal LAHSA operations or governing bodies and does not recommend changes to its JPA. However, since releasing the report, the Committee for Greater LA has been working with local leaders to develop a path forward for the creation of “The Center” and/or its key ingredients.
Homeless governance is having a moment in Los Angeles, but that moment has gone on too long. Public officials and civic leaders are sitting on four thoughtful reports with important recommendations, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Homelessness has likely heard enough to make an informed recommendation. After more than two years, the time for further study is over. It is time to make decisions that will decrease complexity and duplication. It is time to empower LAHSA if we want to hold them accountable for results, and it’s time to acknowledge that governing how we end homelessness requires more than just the crisis response system. It requires a whole community approach that includes all the partners and systems that prevent homelessness, not just LAHSA.
References & Notes
[i] In March 2017, over 66% of LA County voters passed Measure H, a ballot measure that approved a ¼ percent increase to the County’s sales tax to provide an ongoing revenue stream for homeless services. These creates an estimated $355 million per year for ten years to fund services, rental subsidies, and housing for people experiencing homelessness.
[ii] A Joint Powers Authority is a legal entity created to exercise common powers for two or more public agencies or authorities, (such as local governments, a utility, or transportation districts). For example, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) was created in 1993 by the LA City Council and LA County Board of Supervisors to serve as the lead agency in the LA Continuum of Care, which is the regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for homeless families and individuals in Los Angeles County.
[iii] Due to the size of LA County (4,300 miles), homeless service coordination is divided into 8 distinct areas known as Service Planning Areas.
[iv]Sonenshein, Raphael. We’re Not Giving Up: A Plan for Homelessness Governance in Los Angeles. (2021) Page 2.