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Town Hall Explores Solutions to County Homeless Crisis

Despite the ever-rising numbers of people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, the three panelists at a Cedars-Sinai virtual town hall offered hope that effective ways exist to combat the crisis.

Still, the three experts—speaking at the inaugural "Embracing Our Community: LIVE" discussion on Sept. 30—acknowledged that more government money, public support and innovative solutions will be essential to succeed.

"One of the messages I want to send to the public is that this is a solvable problem," said panelist Antonia Hernández, president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, one of Southern California's largest philanthropic organizations.

"We have to understand," she added, "that every time you see a homeless person on the street, that they are one of us. You cannot dehumanize them."

The latest figures show that the task of reducing homelessness will be formidable. A tally this year found that nearly 66,500 people in Los Angeles County were experiencing homelessness. That's up almost 13% from the 2019 level. Due to job losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hernández said, "We're also very worried about the rental and eviction tsunami that's going to come."

Yet the town hall, which was conducted as a webinar on Zoom, began with a measure of optimism. In introductory remarks, Thomas M. Priselac, president and CEO, said homelessness is "not someone's fate. It's a circumstance.

"There are many forces behind this troubling trend, and they require the right solutions. And I'm very glad to say that our panelists and their teams specialize in solutions," he said.

Hernández was joined on the panel by Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, and Va Lecia Adams Kellum, PhD, president and CEO of the St. Joseph Center, a Venice, California-based nonprofit social services organization serving Los Angeles County. The panel's moderator was Arthur J. Ocha, JD, senior vice president of Advancement and chief advancement officer.

The panelists said valuable lessons were gained from Project Roomkey, an initiative launched in Los Angeles County after the outbreak of COVID-19. It rapidly provided interim housing in hotels and motels to more than 4,000 people experiencing homelessness to protect them from the pandemic.

The program, now pinched by a funding squeeze, is expected to shut down early next year. But many homelessness experts have cited it as an example of what can be accomplished when government funds are provided and social services organizations are mobilized.

"We were able to get people housed very quickly through this crisis, and that's what gives me hope," Buik said. "If you can do it in a crisis," she added, "then there are lessons that we can learn."

Thomas M. Priselac, Cedars-Sinai President and CEO
Homelessness is "not someone's fate. It's a circumstance. There are many forces behind this troubling trend, and they require the right solutions.
Thomas M. Priselac, Cedars-Sinai President and CEO

Providing thousands with temporary housing in hotels and motels also made it easier to reach people who need mental health and other healthcare services but who ordinarily lack access. "We do have a model that works, and when people get housed with the services they need, their lives can transform," Buik said.

Buik also pointed out that those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County are "not one monolithic population." She said only about 25% are "what we call chronically homeless, dealing with mental health, dealing with healthcare issues, on the streets for a long time."

Panelists noted that large numbers of people are living in their cars. As an example of an innovative solution already underway, Hernández pointed to so-called safe parking initiatives—which provide such amenities as security, bathrooms and showers—for people in that situation.

Kellum emphasized the payoff the St. Joseph Center has witnessed in recent years from its work in bringing mobile healthcare and other support services out to the people experiencing homelessness. After launching such multidisciplinary outreach teams, Kellum said, "We started to see a profound increase in our effectiveness in the responsiveness of our clients."

Often, she said, a physician on the team might say, "You know, your feet don't look good to me. It looks like you might have high blood pressure. Do you have diabetes? We'd like to take your temperature." That experience, Kellum said, can make a patient who has suffered homelessness feel as if someone cares.

But Kellum said longstanding structural and institutional racism contributes substantially to homelessness. She noted that Black people account for only 8% of Los Angeles County's population but 35% of those experiencing homelessness. "There's no way we will end homelessness without addressing racism," she said.

The panelists said overcoming public apathy also will be essential. After the passage of the City of Los Angeles' Proposition HHH in 2016 and the county's Measure H in 2017, "People thought we solved the problem. No, that was just the down payment on the long-term process of providing homes to the homeless," Hernández said.

Both she and Buik said Measure J, a proposal on the county ballot in November, could provide some additional help. It would require the county Board of Supervisors to allocate at least 10% of its locally generated revenue to rent assistance, affordable housing, youth development initiatives and other programs.

Last week’s "Embracing Our Community: LIVE" town hall was the first in what is envisioned as a series of conversations with community leaders about local issues. No date or subject has been announced for the next discussion, but Ochoa said it would be held in 2021.

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