August 15, 2016; Los Angeles Times

Through agencies like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), federal program dollars are being shifted from shelters and transitional services for the homeless to permanent housing. This policy has formed around the notion that temporary housing may create a habitually homeless client. In order to meet this current focus, some emergency and traditional shelters are closing or converting to permanent accommodations in Los Angeles County where the homelessness problem is the worst in the nation.

But the shift toward permanent housing has had a cost: As money has been directed away from programs that combine services with shorter-term housing, the region’s homelessness problem has gotten worse.

The county’s overall homeless population was roughly unchanged from 2015 to 2016. But the “unsheltered population”—those literally living on the street—increased by about 1,400, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual count.

The change has been abrupt. For decades, the Panama Hotel on Skid Row provided shelter for up to 90 days in 220 rooms, along with resources and case managers. While it is still listed on the website of the nonprofit SRO Housing Corporation, which owns the hotel, it is now closed. The Panama will reopen next year, after renovation, to offer only 72 units of permanent housing.

“We tried to transition as many as we could and farm out to other agencies,” said SRO Chief Executive Anita Nelson. “Unfortunately, some people went back on the street.”

As we reported last month, old motels have been converted to transition housing for the homeless in California. It remains to be seen how the funding will continue for those nonprofit organizations that also provide transitional services in the converted motels. The homeless authority in L.A. cut the funding for transitional housing last year—2,000 fewer beds in 58 organizations—and more cuts are expected.

To put this into perspective, Los Angeles County, with a population of 10 million, had approximately 45,000 homeless people in January, and a disturbing 31,000 of those individuals had no shelter. In comparison, New York City has a population of 8.5 million, and had 60,042 homeless in June…but a much lower proportion, 15,000, had no shelter. New York City has more homeless people than Los Angeles County per capita, but this may be influenced by the fact that NYC is legally required to provide housing for those without it. And, while NYC has more people without homes, there are shelter beds for the majority of those individuals.

It should also be noted that among those seeking emergency placement across the country are victims of domestic violence and their children, for whom a shelter may be the only alternative to sleeping in a car in order to escape from an abuser. Transitional services are critical for that population, and a wait-list for permanent housing will not be helpful in the short term. Let us hope that Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority includes them in their calculations.—Marian Conway