July 20, 2020 - From the July, 2020 issue

Sarah Dusseault on LAHSA’s 'Results-Driven' Approach to Rapid Rehousing

The recently released 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reveals that the number of people experiencing homelessness in LA County continues to grow despite record investment in supportive housing construction and securing housing for more people than ever before. With a mission to provide a results-driven safety net when all the other safety nets have failed, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Commission Chair, Sarah Dusseault, joined TPR to discuss how LAHSA, through its Housing Central Command, is streamlining information-sharing to expedite data-driven solutions that reduce bureaucracy and house people faster. Dusseault points also to affordable housing production as the key to stemming new homelessness and shares LAHSA’s success in placing 4,000 vulnerable individuals experiencing homelessness into safe and socially distant housing through Project Roomkey during the COVID-19 pandemic.


"I've worked on policy for a long time now, and there are a lot of great ideas, but it's really flexibility of implementation that turns a great idea into great results”—Sarah Dusseault

What precisely is LAHSA’s mission (role) in addressing the LA County shelter challenges compounded today by a global pandemic, a cratering economy, and, obviously, a growing number of people falling into homelessness?

Sarah Dusseault: LAHSA is a joint-powers authority created by the City and the County of Los Angeles and is the agency leading our strategy around ending homelessness. I was appointed to this ten-member body by Supervisor Hilda Solis

Our mission is to provide a results-driven safety net when all the other safety nets have failed and get individuals or families experiencing homelessness into either short-term or long-term housing as rapidly as possible. We do that in partnership with community-based nonprofits, the City of Los Angeles, smaller cities, as well as the County and its other agencies: Department of Mental Health, Department of Public Health, Department of Health Services. 

Elaborate on the new model for housing people faster that LAHSA is advancing through its just-released strategic plan?

We created something called Housing Central Command to utilize best government practices to constantly be in touch with leads and drive results in a much more rapid manner by having decision makers in the room to identity target properties, rental units, people, or families. 

We started this last fall, prior to COVID, and there were too many different groups and agencies that had only some of the information with respect to housing any one individual who might have a couple of case managers working with various agencies and no single centralized place for information. 

Immediately upon launching the Housing Central Command, we were able to start cutting red tape that was preventing us from rapidly housing people. We're now able to electronically upload a person's documents—whether it's their ID or a disability certification—so that it's available to any of these agencies responsible for getting this person housed quickly.

It sounds pretty basic, but when you have four or five different agencies working with a family or individual—because of the complexity of their circumstances—you can have a lack of shared information. We're cutting barriers to sharing information, so that we can house people more quickly either through subsidized housing, Section 8 tenant based vouchers, rapid rehousing programs, and other programs we administer.

We are one of the recipients of Measure H, the sales tax measure that LA County voters passed to help end homelessness. We’re also the lead agency for the federal government for what's called the Continuum of Care. Utilizing those funding resources, along with state resources and the funding the City of Los Angeles has contributed, we're trying to rapidly house people through this program.

LAHSA has just released the results of the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, finding a 13 percent increase with more than 66,000 people experiencing homelessness in LA County on any given night. How does the magnitude of the challenge impact your mission?

The size of the challenge impacts us in many ways. The homeless count has shown us that while we're placing more people than ever before, we are seeing more and more families and individuals fall into homelessness. In the last year, we placed over 22,000 individuals and families into permanent housing options. Even though we've doubled the placement rate in the last few years, we are experiencing many more people falling into homelessness over that same period of time.

We have to do a lot more around the prevention of homelessness. Some of that involves things that LAHSA can do and some of it has to be a call to action to our community that we have to build the over 500,000 affordable units called for through the state RHNA goals over the next few years. We also need naturally occurring affordable housing so that families and individuals have housing options and are not falling into homelessness in the first place. And we need a full zoning plan to build thousands and thousands of units, decades ago our city was zoned for 10 million units and has been down zoned to less than 4 mllion. We need to imagine results far beyond the scale of what we've been able to tackle so far.

The fact that we're building more permanent supportive and interim housing has helped tremendously. The number of sheltered individuals and families has increased because we've increased the supply of interim housing through the Mayor's A Bridge Home program and other County programs. We don't want to see any form of homelessness, but unsheltered homelessness is particularly traumatic.

We need to continue our efforts in expanding supportive housing and affordable housing options, so that we can use rapid rehousing dollars to help someone who's just fallen into homelessness for economic reasons to rapidly get back into permanent housing option and stabilize. The longer a person or family experiences homelessness, the greater the economic trauma, health issues, and other challenges that that person may face.

Sarah, regarding the need to take bolder strategies to keep low-income and senior residents from losing their housing, now set to expire in LA County on July 31, are COVID emergency tenant protections. What is LAHSA’s plan or strategy for preventing a new wave of evictions and resulting homelessness?

First and foremost, we need to extend the moratorium so that the expiration doesn't hit smack in the middle of the economic recovery phase. It's clear that we're still in the first wave of COVID-19, and we don't want to see protections expire. It does sound like both the governor and judicial courts are listening to advocates and have already agreed to extend those protections.

In addition, the Los Angeles City Council and the County Board of Supervisors both have implemented the largest rental assistance programs in the country that are targeted specifically to avert this crisis. At LAHSA, we support both of those programs and want to see them expanded in a targeted manner to people who've been hit the hardest. We are also advocating for tenant assistance statewide measures.

TPR recently published a very thoughtful interview with Alisa Orduña, who was formerly the senior advisor on homelessness in Santa Monica. She shared how social distancing poses quite a challenge for agencies tasked with sheltering people during the pandemic. With social distancing requirements and the how COVID-19 is transmitted, moving people into a congregate setting would be more dangerous than healthy. Is this a challenge that your grantees and programs have faced, as well?

Absolutely. We launched Project Roomkey as soon as the pandemic hit in partnership with the Governor, Mayor, Board of Supervisors and LA City Council. It's a statewide program, and our results in Los Angeles County have been phenomenal. We've sheltered over 4,000 people in hotel rooms in the past few months through our pandemic response. 

While this is a temporary solution, we actually are extending some of those hotel contracts and working on a Recovery Plan to continue to permanently house the 15,000 that we've identified as most vulnerable to COVID-19: people over the age of 65 or people or with an underlying health condition. We're going to build on this phenomenal, rapid expansion of temporary housing in order to permanently house those 4,000 individuals, couples, and families and expand to house all 15,000. Nothing on this scale has ever been launched in this short of time.

Elaborate, given your plans going forward, on how COVID-19 is impacting congregate housing as a strategy for combatting homelessness?

To be clear, congregate housing is not our primary strategy. Our primary strategy has been to find individual rooms that allow for physical distancing, and that's how we've been able to house 4,000 people.

COVID-19 has certainly challenged the idea of large-scale congregate settings. We've been able to create physical distancing within the congregate settings that we have, and then we've been able to bring online over 4,000 units.

Hotels are the strategy we employed prior to COVID-19  for families who we don't want to see unsheltered at any point in time. When COVID-19 hit, the CDC issued guidelines that to encourage FEMA to reimburse jurisdictions for individual housing units, either hotels, motels, or other means. Project Roomkey has been able to address the issue of providing a safer-at-home setting to our unhoused neighbors. A person has access to three meals a day delivered directly to their room to minimize COVID-19 exposure.

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Through this program, we've been able to significantly address the spread of COVID-19 in populations of people experiencing homelessness. It's been extremely successful in keeping our positive rates low and keeping people safe and healthy.

 

You have described LAHSA’s new Executive Director, Heidi Marston, as “the exact person we want to reform an entrenched system—she’s brave, energetic and unflappable.” You note that she has a “commanding mastery of the details of how a bold homeless services system should work." Elaborate.

We all experienced Heidi's energy and unflappable leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When this first hit, there were so many unknowns. She immediately engaged subject matter experts and began building a team of many agencies: LA County Fire, the Departments of Public Health and Health Services, Department of Mental Health, the Homeless Initiative at the county, the City of LA, in addition to all the elected offices.

The effort to save lives and house 4,000 people faster than we've ever been able to—and do it in a manner where we're tapping into federal resources and shoring up existing infrastructure—was a monumental task.

Those were our primary objectives, and Heidi’s leadership skills during that period were just impressive. To be able to think outside the box, cut through the old ways of doing things, and create new approaches, all the while doing it in partnership with a variety of jurisdictions, cities, agencies, and offices. 

In other parts of the state, Project Roomkey has not been nearly as successful and in part because they didn't have the leadership of the main agency staffing up quickly, engaging with providers, and creating that centralized command involving the voices of many different agencies.

The other focus of this work was also continuing to lift up racial equity and making sure that as we're housing people, we do it in an equitable manner, looking at the geography and the placement in order to make sure we're housing everyone in need. 

When Heidi Marston accepted the position, she defined the challenges faced in a very persuasive way, "Homelessness in Los Angeles County is a crisis every day. We have to respond to it with daily urgency while we redesign this institution to be strong and flexible enough to deliver that response at the scale of need. We need world-class data systems, we need strategies and actions rooted in racial equity, we need constant flexibility in our approach and renewal of our partnerships, and we need to do it all while keeping in our hearts the humanity and vulnerability of every person we serve." Please, elaborate. 

What's been exciting about this challenging moment is that similarly to other big moments in history, this challenge calls for racial justice and a true response to the economic disparities that existed before the pandemic. To be resilient and ready for a future pandemic, we need a housing system that is built at scale and enables us to truly rapidly rehouse, at any time, an individual or family who falls into homelessness. That's the goal. 

We believe we can get there if we build on this momentum that has been set in motion, continue to challenge old systems and to drive resilience and data-driven solutions. We're the lead agency on homelessness, and there are a lot of other agencies that are doing phenomenal work. But we have to engage our partners in new and strategic ways.

The urgency Heidi speaks of is something that I live with every day, because I have a brother who experiences homelessness due to severe mental illness. I try to approach this work with the urgency knowing my brother is out there, and that there are other brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers out there. That's how the work has to be approached—it can't just be a number; people and families and their lives are at stake.

And it can’t be done without good data, which is a challenge because of the complexity of the system and there are so many different agencies that touch on people's lives. Data is also necessary to drive a racial equity. We cannot let the disproportionate effects of homelessness continue to affect people of color, particularly Black people at unconstitutional and unjust rates. Thirty-four percent of people experiencing homelessness are Black, yet they are less than 10 percent of the population; that is a significant overrepresentation. 

Decades and decades of racism imbedded into systems plays out in our housing policy, and we've got to reverse that. The only way to do that is to be bold in looking at each and every aspect of the system and hold up equity as a primary value in each and every layer of the system and to hold ourselves accountable.

It's tough work, but we're making some strides. Project Roomkey, when it was first implemented, didn't have the racial equity or mix of demographics that we wanted, and immediately—because we were tracking it—we were able to address it. Did we have the right geographic mix of hotels? Are our outreach workers doing the work in terms of placing people in an equitable manner? Those adjustments were made because we're using data to track how we're doing.

I've worked on policy for a long time now and there are a lot of great ideas, but it's really in the flexibility of implementation that turns a great idea into great results. We have to continue tobe flexible in our approach and utilize good data practices.

Next to last question. LAHSA’s mission to house people experiencing homelessness presupposes the return to a vibrant economy that allows for people to have work, living wages, and the ability in time to afford rent or ownership of housing. This month, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said, "My assumption is that there will be a significant chunk, well into the millions [of] people who don't get to go back to their old job... there may not be a job in that industry for them for some time." The unemployment rate in California has quadrupled, yet the discussions at the policy ranks of the state, counties, and cities of California are infrequently about the need for economic development. Could you address the impact and nexus of Los Angeles’ regional economy on LAHSA’s realistic ability to assure housing for people now experiencing homelessness? 

When area median income and area median housing price are completely out of whack, the results is a larger percentage of people experiencing homelessness. For a long time— even before this particular economic crisis—we've had an area median income that's fairly stagnant and housing prices that keep going up.

The 2020 California Housing Partnership study says 509,000 units are needed, but in the regional economic plan, it's a little over 430,000 units by 2029. We need about 100,000 affordable housing units built per year, and that's only going to happen with significant changes around how we approach construction and zoning for affordable housing. These and other studies make the case that access to housing is critical for a good economy.

Is it fair to point out that the above study was done before the impact of pandemic on global and local economies. How might an economic strategy differ if the impacts of COVID on employment and workforce were considered?

We need bolder action around the same lines. If we don't have public-private partnerships around building significant housing, how else are we going to address it? Obviously, there needs to be an economic development platform around job creation, but as it stands right now, our job centers do not have access to housing.

The Committee for Greater LA is looking at the disproportionate impact on a variety of industries as well as particular neighborhoods. We see time and time again that access to affordable housing drives employment, health, and access to education, and the pandemic hasn't changed that, it has only heightened the need. 

What we've seen in the history of our nation is that the response—whether it was the Great Depression or other recessions—where we've been effective, is where we've been able build large-scale affordable housing to house people quickly, as part of an overall economic development platform. Without a significant housing piece, I don't see how we're able to recover.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.