ibudiallo (pixabay.com)

January 27, 2020; Next City

Los Angeles, and California more generally, have been called “ground zero” for the US’s homelessness crisis. This challenge has built over decades, and approaches to address it have sometimes come in relatively disconnected waves. This has led to programmatic silos that now are seen as part of the problem.

This point of view is echoed by Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, who told the Los Angeles Times last summer that “there’s actually incredibly strong things happening across California.”

In Los Angeles, there are some of the best permanent supportive housing providers in the country, with some of the most innovative projects, engagement of the public health system directly in the work of homelessness, the city-county partnership….There’s a lot that’s going on there.

But when each governmental department and nonprofit organization comes with different understandings of the problem and different theories of change, the whole approach can manifest in ways that are disconnected from the realities of many people without permanent homes. In fact, Geoff Thompson, who led Los Angeles’ homelessness plan, recognized the disparate approaches that the city and county took, describing them as isolated—or at times, even adversarial. Thompson saw that to be effective, it would be necessary to clarify and outline the responsibilities and roles of all the players, including the L.A. Homeless Services Authority and the nonprofit community.

Addressing it just at that level of effective service in a worsening crisis, FUSE fellow Erica Medina Stanulis, who worked on the San Francisco pilot of California’s Whole Person Care program, notes that effective planning must be done by effective teams:

The bureaucratic environment for planning around homelessness is usually polished. But presenting transparent, non-doctored feedback—rather than a formal report—encouraged even more opportunities for collaboration. It created a conversation between participants to review the output and suggest corrections. That doesn’t happen when you analyze something in a silo, polish it, and present it.

Of course, all this collaboration needs funding to function. As Thompson observes, homelessness isn’t a problem that will succumb to “a silver bullet—it requires spending, and it requires thoughtful services. But where we’ve seen the right investments made, we’ve seen results.” And getting that investment remains a problem. In a previous look at homelessness, NPQ cited Michael Storper, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, who “places these housing issues in the context of the larger debate over the wealth divide: ‘Inequalities of income plus urbanization are really toxic combos. How deep is society’s commitment to dealing with [them]?”

What this article did not address, unfortunately, was the need to prioritize the voices of people who are now and once were homeless in the development of solutions both preventative and ameliorative that would stem the flow into, and ease the flow out of, homelessness. That should always be the first collaborative impulse.

And, in the end, coordination and collaboration will surely help, but without planning around more coherent and equitable principles of development, increasing numbers of people will continue to live under bridges, on sidewalks, and in parks.—Martin Levine and Ruth McCambridge