September 22, 2016 - From the September, 2016 issue

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas Prioritizes LA County’s Homeless

On any given night, 115,000 people are homeless in California. In a recent op-ed, New York Times San Francisco bureau chief Thomas Fuller described California’s homelessness situation thus: “Destitution clashing with high technology. Well-dressed tourists sharing the pavement with vaguely human forms inside cardboard boxes,” and shared that he is “confounded how to explain to my two children why a wealthy society allows its most vulnerable citizens to languish on the streets.” Over the past year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas has used his platform to push (unsuccessfully) Governor Jerry Brown to establish a state of emergency for homelessness, opening up critical funding for rapid rehousing and mental health services. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas joins TPR to shed some light on more localcity or countyfunding and policy inititiatives to address homelessness and advocate specifically for the passage of the City of Los Angeles’ Proposition HHH measure.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

"In poll after poll—whether they were done by Republicans or Democrats did not make any difference—it was made abundantly clear that homelessness is the top-tier issue for the people of this county.” - Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas

Supervisor, homelessness is indifferent to political boundaries. Nevertheless, you’ve been a driving force on the LA County Board of Supervisors to press for action and funding to address the region’s service and shelter needs. Why do you believe it has been such a challenge for the county to appropriately respond? 

Mark Ridley-Thomas: What the county recognizes is that we have a responsibility, and it’s a responsibility that has not been sufficiently fulfilled. It’s part of the reason that things have gotten as bad as they have.

You have to start from the vantage point of being willing to be self-critical. Over the last decade, our investments in improving and upgrading services in the county have not kept up with the challenges of homelessness—and not just in the county, but the city and the state as well.

We began to learn more and more from the Los Angeles homeless count, which continues to demonstrate an uptick or increase. Here’s some startling data: From 2015 to 2016, there was a 55-percent increase in homelessness among women, and a 20-percent increase in encampments throughout the county. It is our responsibility to step up.

We began polling to learn what we must do on this issue. In poll after poll—whether they were done by Republicans or Democrats did not make any difference—it was made abundantly clear that homelessness is the top-tier issue for the people of this county. In eight of 10 polls, homelessness was the No. 1 issue. This was an unprecedented revelation.

That means, in effect, that it’s higher than crime and public safety, higher than transportation, higher than education, health—you name it. It was second only to the issue of jobs and the economy, and that was only in two of the 10 different polls.

Why then have the public agencies and program funding not aligned with the polling?

Well, we began with advocacy around the millionaire’s tax because that garnered the most support throughout the county. From one district to the next, there was very intense favorability there. But it would have required an act of legislation to give local government the capacity to assess a tax on quote-unquote millionaires.

When we were not greeted with success by the Legislature or the governor, we then moved, at the behest of the Board, to asking the Legislature and the governor to declare a state of emergency and to allocate approximately a half-billion dollars across the state. The Assembly said yes; the Senate took a pass; the governor said no.

What I would say to the governor of the State of California is this: Mr. Brown, you have 115,000 reasons to declare a state of emergency—the largest homeless population in the United States of America. It cannot be denied. It will not go unattended. That’s more people than you can fit into the Coliseum and Staples Center combined. To the extent that that is the case, we still call on Governor Brown to step up and do the right thing.

We’ve put forth an online petition, and more than 26,000 people have petitioned the governor to declare the state of emergency. Cities throughout the state have also done so. The County Association of Boards of Supervisors in California did the same thing by way of resolution. We coordinated webinars and a whole range of things with Hawaii to help walk us through the pros and cons of the declaration of the state of emergency. We have been diligent in this effort.

What about Los Angeles County’s response to the challenge?

We put forth a quarter-cent sales tax. It did not garner the four votes on the LA County Board of Supervisors needed to place it on the November ballot. That’s because members of the Board had other priorities—mainly parks and transportation, rather than homelessness.

Now, we will aim toward the March 2017 ballot with a quarter-cent sales tax. It will essentially be aimed at addressing the services gap—mental health services and recuperative care. Multidisciplinary teams will go out into the community to do the work that is so desperately needed and is so conspicuously absent.

They’ll do rapid rehousing, rent subsidies, and a range of things that are critically necessary and we know by way of best practices. They’ll do substance abuse treatment, because that’s a significant contributing factor to the crisis that a number of homeless persons experience.

I recently put forth a motion, which was unanimously adopted, to consolidate the elections of March of next year so that we can then be positioned better to preserve the option to place a sales-tax measure on the ballot for the people of LA County’s consideration. If we did that, we could generate as much as $355 million annually to do the service end of this.

Building new buildings and the like is insufficient. You have to have services in order for people to begin to regain their footing and be constructive contributors to their respective communities. 

Pressed chiefly by you, the county now has endorsed the city of LA’s Proposition HHH to build housing for the homeless. Address the value of Prop HHH to the policy and funding homelessness agenda you’ve been advancing.

What’s valuable about it is that the city has its head in the game in a big way.


We need every approach possible. The city cannot do the services end of it, because that’s the county’s function and responsibility. But there are 47,000 homeless persons in the county of Los Angeles, 28,000 of whom are residents of the city of Los Angeles. They know that the need for affordable housing and the need for housing for the homeless are real, and it’s most pronounced in the city of Los Angeles. Therefore, they’ve taken it upon themselves to go forward, and it’s up to us to embrace and support Proposition HHH.

How do you, as a seasoned political representative at the city, county, and, state levels, successfully engage constituencies to support funding initiatives and programs that respond to the homelessness crisis?

The good news in that regard—and this is one of our major assets—is that people get it. It is elected officials who are behind the curve on it.

The polls to which I referred earlier make it abundantly clear that this is the top-tier issue for people. People want their leaders to work and resolve this crisis—even to the point of being willing to tax themselves in order to get results. That’s why we’re confident about the quarter-cent sales tax. The people have said yes.

Clearly, different communities often view this issue differently. How might race and homelessness intersect to forge a consensus on addressing homelessness?

The data suggests the following: that roughly 39 percent of homeless people in Los Angeles County are African-Americans, 27 percent are Latinos, and 25-26 percent are Anglo.

There’s been a pretty substantial investment on the part of the various ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Across the board, irrespective of ethnicity or political orientation, voters want this issue addressed.

Lastly, TPR recently interviewed incoming Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who focused a great deal on his homelessness agenda. Where might Los Angeles County and its 88 cities find successful policy models for addressing the growing urban homelessness crisis? Is Sacramento a model?

One could look to an innovative county-city-community partnership in Skid Row—not even quite a year old—that consists of four teams of multidisciplinary individuals. These individuals have formed Integrated Street Engagement Teams, or C3 Teams to highlight the collaboration between County, City and Community.

In Skid Row, the Department of Health Services uses C3 to engage, assist and house the 2,000 persons living on the streets. Each C3 team has a nurse, substance use counselor, mental health clinician, peer with lived experience, and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority outreach worker.

The results are pretty impressive already. Over the last six months, four C3 integrated teams in Skid Row have conducted daily outreach/engagement and assisted 772 unsheltered homeless residents. 370 persons have been connected to interim housing, a couple hundred are in process for permanent supportive housing, and more than 50 people have received keys and moved into their own housing with services attached. We need more of that.

They stood up a new recuperative care center as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus—not the inpatient hospital tower—with 100 beds for persons who are too sick to go home after having a hospital stay, but not sick enough to warrant being in the hospital, with all the costs that are associated with that. It’s a step-down facility, and it’s the antidote to patient dumping. We need more of that.

There is also a Skid Row Sobering Center in the process of launching this fall, which will actively work to break the cycle of Skid Row-to-jail or to-hospital for chronic alcohol-dependent homeless. It will be a resource for law enforcement, the Fire Department, and service organizations to treat more than 2,000 patients, and will also include 50 beds.

I have tremendous regard for Darrell Steinberg. As you know, we served in the Assembly and the Senate together, and we are as one. You may have seen his recent op-ed in the Huffington Post about the work that we are doing, which is beneficial to the LA community and the state as a whole.

Darrell and I have been talking about this issue. In fact, it was his idea that gave birth to the No Place Like Home concept—a bond against Prop 63 revenues—that the Senate pro Tem Kevin de León led on and Governor Brown signed into law. The No Place Like Home Initiative will increase annual production of permanent supportive housing units for seriously mentally ill homeless individuals, which is roughly 30% of the homeless population in Los Angeles. Los Angeles can expect to see over 1500 units of permanent supportive housing over the next four years as a result of this bond approach.

But the fact of the matter is, those dollars and projects don’t stand up until two or three years from now, at best. The same is true in the city. And two or three years from now would be smack dab in the middle of what? Another recession; another downturn in the economy.

I can assure you of this: In that case, the homelessness situation will only be exacerbated yet again. It’s urgent that we address the issue now.


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