February 28, 2023 - From the March, 2023 issue

Miguel Santana & Rick Cole on the Frontline Failures of LA’s Approach to Homelessness

In January, Los Angeles County conducted its annual homelessness count. As a follow up,  a special meeting of the ULI-LA’s Homelessness Initiative Council was called; and, Chief Deputy LA City Controller, Rick Cole, and CEO of the Weingart Foundation and former LA City Administrative Officer,  Miguel Santana, opined on the impacts of their and the city's policy choices on the homelessness crisis on the ground. Santana, through the personal lens of a frustrating real-life journey through the City and County’s bureaucracy to connect an unhoused, disabled senior with housing and services, highlights the challenges of navigating a system designed without the needs of those most vulnerable in mind. The importance of their commentary is further heightened by the recent  implosion of one of LA’s largest Skid Row housing providers.

“…the story of Ms. Triggs tells a very complicated story about a system that we've created, frankly, not for her, but for the interests who benefit from that system.” -Miguel Santana

Rick Cole: For many of us in this room, Miguel is a person who needs no introduction. I think when it comes to the civil infrastructure of Los Angeles, I don't think anyone has more gravitas than Miguel Santana. His public service has shown courage and integrity consistently across a whole range of responsibilities. One of the throughputs for that has been a concern about the issue of homelessness.

When I was deputy mayor, I was interviewed by a graduate intern who was doing a study on the cost of homelessness to the city; not just the money spent directly on programs aimed at curbing homelessness, but the actual burden on taxpayers of fire response, police response, and sanitation response. The purpose of that was to redirect that investment. We were spending money we didn't realize in ways that weren't producing results. Miguel’s goal was to quantify that in order to redirect those resources. That graduate intern was named Nithya Raman, by the way.

He's got a great eye for talent. He has, throughout his career, been concerned about the most vulnerable in our community.

The people of Los Angeles have told their leaders at the city and the county, “No more excuses. We need to make change.” That sense of urgency is real, but that sense of urgency can lead people sometimes to short-sighted answers.

The best advice I ever got in public service was from Miguel. We used to meet every week when I was deputy mayor. I forget what incredibly important project that I was trying to get him to support, but he said to me, “Remember, Rick, it's a marathon and not a sprint.” Miguel has been a marathon runner. Like St. Paul he has run the race. He's fought the good fight. He is a good and faithful servant to the City of Los Angeles.

Miguel Santana: Thank you, Rick. It's been a pleasure working with you. You've been a marathon runner too and understand municipal government: how things work and how they don't. Thank you for this invitation.

I've had the privilege of working on homelessness my entire adult life. I started off as a student at Whittier College volunteering at a rotating homeless shelter throughout my undergrad. I ended up running the program by the time I was a sophomore. When I was at the County, as Rick mentioned, I worked on homelessness both on the eighth floor at the Hall of Administration with Supervisor Molina and then later as Deputy CEO overseeing all social services. I've worked on it at the City with Councilwoman Raman and others trying to create an alternative approach to how we think about this issue.

It's a very frustrating experience, as all of you must feel, to work on something for such a long time and to see, during that trajectory, the situation get worse. I take a huge amount of responsibility for the system that we have. Part of that responsibility means being honest about how it's not working because there's a lot at stake for those who are unhoused. Throughout my career, I've had different ways in which I've gotten to meet people who've experienced homelessness and placed real-life stories behind billions of dollars.

Last summer on a very hot day, my wife Elizabeth called me and said there was a woman who had collapsed in our yard. We live in West Adams in the avenues. We’re on Sixth Avenue, and Ms. Triggs’, as we've gotten to know her, tent is on Eighth Avenue. Her childhood home where she spent her entire life up until about 20 years ago is on 10th Avenue. In this neighborhood, she has spent her entire life and has been unhoused for 10 years.

So, my wife went out to help her and gave her some water. She realized that she was disoriented from the heat, 74 years old, and blind. For us, this started a very tangible journey to understand very clearly how this system works and how it doesn't work. For seven months, Elizabeth and I were Ms. Triggs’ advocates through a very complicated, uncoordinated, well-funded system that I helped create.

She checks off every single box when it comes to priority. There's a system called a coordinated entry system, that I was part of putting together, that services the people who are the most vulnerable and prioritizes them. She’s blind, as I said before. She must weigh around 100 pounds and has been unhoused for 10 years. Despite that, it took our persistent advocacy and familiarity with the system and those who run it to finally get her housed a couple of days ago.

She's housed in a unit that was funded by HHH. I looked it up. $700,000 is how much it took to build the one bedroom that she lives in. It's literally down the street from our home on Adams. When I was on the HHH oversight committee several years ago, I recommended that project. If you're doing the math, that was in 2017. The unit opened up two weeks ago. All of the units are for senior citizens who have been unhoused.

For me, the story of Ms. Triggs tells a very complicated story about a system that we've created, frankly, not for her, but for the interests who benefit from that system. It’s not because they're bad people or because they don't care, but because our system is so complicated that whether you're a service provider or a developer or a councilmember, you are in charge of one slice of a very big pie. Your ability to influence the rest of that system is limited. From my vantage point as someone who's looked at it at a policy level and a human perspective, you can see how uncoordinated and how unaligned that system is.

I can tell you the reasons that unit that she's in today took so long. When HHH was placed on the ballot, and I recommended it, it was the purest form of funding. For bureaucrats like me, you really look for purity in funding streams, in that the only restriction around it is that it had to go to bricks and mortar. It was not my first recommendation. My first recommendation was something that could pay for bricks and mortar and services, but the voters weren’t too big fans of that.

The City, in how it implemented HHH, added a whole bunch of strings attached to it. The one string it attached is that, coming from a place of scarcity, the City had this idea that the taxpayers’ investments should be leveraged with state, federal, and other resources. It's that leveraging that allows you to build more.

It's also that leveraging that takes time because each one of those resources has its own expectations, its own rules, and its own timeframes. By the time you're done going through this process of securing all of these different revenue streams that the city mandates, a project starts off as $300,000 per unit and ends up at $700,000 per unit. Nothing adds to cost more than time. The time that it takes to go through that process increases the price tag. Certainly, in this period of hyperinflation, that's been especially so.

 The second reason is that as much as we talk about the need for affordable housing, the City's machine doesn't prioritize it. The City takes an HHH project, supported by taxpayers, and puts it on the same assembly line as everything else.

If you're a megaproject like the ones Downtown, you have the ability to hire a cottage of lobbyist and attorneys. If you’re a nonprofit provider, you have to wait in line and hope that you have a councilmember who supports your project. By the way, that councilmember has the ability to quietly kill your project by simply not returning your call. Some of you have experienced that and maybe are experiencing it now.

Once you go through the entitlements, you go through the entire community process. Everyone voted for HHH, but if we had said “we're building housing next to you”, it would have been harder to pass. Every community has their concerns, so that requires another process. Then you get your entitlements and you're ready to go, but then you're stuck in the bureaucratic process of Building and Safety, Planning, DWP, the fire department, etc.

The question that I asked myself is how did Ms. Triggs end up unhoused for 10 years under the radar? I happen to know the people who run the system. I called Veronica Lewis, who is the area service provider through HOPICS in our area. I asked if she was in their system: nope. She then got into system.

We asked to put her in temporary housing until the project down the street gets completed. We just needed the councilman’s approval because there's only so many motel vouchers. It was during the two weeks that Herb Wesson was back in office, so I called and asked him to approve her moving in. He said yes.

Elizabeth and I went with a caseworker and told Ms. Triggs that she got into temporary housing. She said no. What we realized is that she believes that the house that she grew up in was going to be returned to her. She believes that when the courts give it to her, they will need to find her and if she's too far away, they won't be able to track her down. Unfortunately, that's not true. The house has been sold three times since her family lost it.

She also doesn't believe that she's blind. She thinks that there's a haze in the air. One of the things that she asked for is a radio so she could find out the weather report for when the haze is finally going to leave.

We couldn't convince her to move out to the temporary housing, but we asked if she would be willing to go to a development down the street that was being built. She said yes. Then, I called Robin who runs Abode and asked what's taking so long. She said the DWP wouldn’t return their call. I called Marty to finally get things moving. That still took about six months.

When she was able to move in, the St. Joseph Center started providing her services. One of the things that was really fascinating was that it was required that a third party verify that she was unhoused. The federal government requires that. So, I had to sign as that third party.

Because she refuses to admit that she's blind, there was a question as to whether she should check off that box of disability. We had to vouch for her disability as well. Then, she was required to show proof of income, and we had a vouch for that too.

We have created a system that really wasn't designed for her. It was designed for us to prepare ourselves to have a paper trail of proof for when there's an LA Times article saying that one person got housing who wasn't eligible.

I think about whether, in the 30+ years I've been working on this issue, this is progress. The voters just passed ULA, and it's going to be a $1 billion a year. HHH was $1 billion dollars over 10 years. Angelenos are incredibly generous with the amount of support that we're providing, as a community, to fix a human crisis that is unprecedented. As an Angeleno, I'm very proud to be part of this community.

The frustration that people have is legitimate. The anger and hostility is appropriate. Instead of dismissing it, we should look at what's contributing to it and tackle these issues one by one. With that, I'm happy to talk about ways to do that.

Rick Cole: Thanks Miguel for putting a very human face on this issue. H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complicated social problem facing America, there's an answer that's simple, easy, cheap, and wrong.” Everyone seems to have a one-size-fits-all solution. You have a much more nuanced view. What are the prospects for tackling specific issues and bringing together a symphony of solutions versus trying to find one magic answer that's going to solve everything? 

Miguel Santana: I think it starts with really changing our thinking about our role in dealing with these significant problems. It reminds me of a conversation, I had with my mom when I was in college and was sharing with her about being a volunteer at the homeless shelter.

My parents are immigrants from Mexico who came in the 1960s. They were undocumented through most of my childhood and became natural legalized under the amnesty program in the ‘80s. My dad worked construction his entire life here. They came here to experience this “American Dream.” They have eight children, and most of them went off to college, with a couple Ivy League degrees in that mix. We're successful in our own ways. They have a nice retirement home in Yucaipa next to my sister and have enough income to survive off of.

From their perspective, having really been advocates for themselves to achieve this dream, my parents have a hard time understanding how people could be unhoused. For them, who literally came with nothing and who were in the shadows of our community for most of their lives here, they believe that this is a place that if you work hard, play by the rules, and do your part, you will succeed.

The truth is, that isn't true. It's true for some and not for others. Ms. Triggs had a very well-established childhood. Her childhood home is beautiful. She has a college education. She worked an entire successful career.


It's not surprising that someone like Ms. Triggs is unhoused because one of the fastest-growing groups of people who are becoming unhoused are the elderly. They are being priced out of the homes that they live in. In her case, she lost her home. It was sold, and she had no infrastructure to go to.

I'm not sure if my parents, today, would have the same story because raising eight kids in Southeast LA County would have been very difficult with one breadwinner who hangs drywall. I think it would have been a very challenging experience for them today to do that.

To answer your question, as Americans, we have to ask this fundamental question about if the American Dream doesn't exist for everyone, what responsibility do we have for those that have fallen out of that system? Let’s not focus on why they’ve fallen out.

 Our system is designed to exclude people. Ms.Triggs is a perfect example. She says she’s not blind, so she’s second on the list now. She’s only been unhoused for 10 years? The person who has been unhoused for 20 years is ahead. It's not designed to help; it’s designed to exclude her. 

What if we focused on what we expect for the most vulnerable and what kind of community we want to have and design a system for them and not for us? Then suddenly, everything else would start changing. We see it around the world. This is the dark side of the American Dream. It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, and I think that we have the ability to reimagine that.

 I'm a big supporter of the idea that housing is a human right. Once you’ve established it as a threshold, then you do whatever it takes to get someone housed. We've established that every child is entitled to a public education regardless of where they live or what kind of income they have. Housing is something that we need to think about in the same way. Once you use that as the foundation and create a system that assures that right, then I think other light bulbs start clicking.

Rick Cole: One area that is particularly timely is that now is the precise time we count the homeless in Los Angeles. People fan out all across Los Angeles County for a feel-good homelessness Lollapalooza.

I was the organizer of the third homeless count in America as Mayor of Pasadena. I found that unlike the census numbers that showed 234 homeless people in Pasadena, there were 1037. We used that data to build Pasadena’s continuum of care. That's why Pasadena has a much lower rate of homelessness. That's why Pasadena doesn't have any encampments.

The shameful reality is that 30 years ago, we sent people out in teams of four in the middle of the night with flashlights and clipboards to figure out how many homeless people there were. It's 2023, and we're sending people out in teams of four to fan out in the middle of the night once a year.

We have terabytes of information about each and every homeless person, including Ms. Triggs, because she might not be in the HMI’s system, but I guarantee that the Sanitation Department noticed she was there. The neighbors know she was there. The police may have noticed she was there.

We know where Ms. Triggs is, yet in the middle of the night, once a year, we go out and then the numbers don't come out for six months. They're not even very accurate because we don't actually count people, we count tents, sleeping bags, and cars. Then, we have a black box algorithm that says, on the basis of how many tents and sleeping bags and cars and people we saw wandering around, that's the magic number down to the third decimal place.

How do we get data so that we actually are building a system around the vulnerable people? We know who they are or where the encampments have been. A person is seen by the fire department in the morning, the police department in the afternoon, and a Business Improvement District ambassador in the evening. Then they go to a shelter and none of that information is known or shared or aggregated for decision making. How do we fix that?

Miguel Santana: In some ways, it's not surprising that we treat homelessness like we treat bulky item pickup. The city is uniquely designed to be reactive. It reacts to you complaining.

I'm a big complainer, and the City is designed to react. Guess what? People like me, who are college educated or maybe the past CEO of the City, helped design the system that I'm using every regular day. I know how to do it, and for the most part, it does respond.

The problem is that no one's really in charge at the City to proactively identify these things. I could tell you which walls in my community will likely have graffiti. It's quite predictable. The thing is that LAPD has figured out how to do this with crime through the stats program. They have a very sophisticated war room where you could see exactly where crime is occurring. One of the big revolutions in policing is that they went from divide by 15 to divide by need. You have to predict where the need is. Imagine if we treated other things that way. Imagine if we treated homelessness that way. To start to doing that, there has to be somebody in charge. There's no one in charge of homelessness. 

Rick Cole: There's no one in charge of the city government in Los Angeles?

Miguel Santana: Well, that's not true. I believe that the mayor is in charge if she or he decides to be. Some mayors decide not to be and some mayors do. The most significant thing about Mayor Bass declaring a state of emergency on day one, before she even walked into the office, is that she was saying, “I'm in charge.”

The reason why that was such a big deal is because, until then, we didn't know. Somebody needed to fix that problem. Councilmembers decided they were going to be that somebody, so we had 15 strategies. We were leaf blowing people around from district to district. Mayor Bass was willing to say that she was going to be in charge: the good, the bad, and the ugly of that.

A year from now, there'll be, I can guarantee, an article in the LA Times saying what a failure she's been. That’s because there will still be people unhoused on the street and their numbers might actually still be climbing. That's why no one wants to be in charge.

The second step is actually creating the system that takes all these pieces, looks at them holistically, and then builds some coordination within the city. The story of Ms. Triggs talks about both what needs to happen on the housing side and on the social services side. We've treated those things, up until Mercedes Márquez got appointed, as two very discrete systems that didn't intersect with one another.

The third thing is a real intentionality on the relationship between the City and the County. Mayor Bass won't be able to solve this issue by herself. She doesn't run a mental health system or a social service system. The services that that help Ms. Triggs when she was unhoused and today are actually funded by the county through Measure H. If the City and the County aren't talking to each other, then it doesn't work. Occasionally, they're not mad at each other, so there are moments of hope and optimism, but it's episodic. It's based on relationships and not operationalized.

We don't treat anything else that way. If there's a wildfire in the City of LA and it then moves into an unincorporated area, the city doesn't say, “I'll take care of this side of the fire; you take care of that side of the fire.” In fact, they start working together even when it's on just one side or the other. There are mutual aid agreements that are established on how to do it. There's a chain of command; there's a structure. It happens in a routine way that doesn't require the mayor to call the chair of the board of supervisors and ask if they mind coming together and working to make something happen. We treat homelessness that way.

I think that accountability and operationalizing the integrated approach of doing this work, all of those pieces, need to come together to make real progress.

Rick Cole: If we've learned anything, it is that while we expect accountability from our elected officials, homelessness is too big a challenge for us not to all be engaged. That's why you're here this morning. That's why we have a Homelessness Council. That's why ULI has been so committed to this issue.

The piece that is closest to ULI is the housing part. One of the candidates for mayor said he would have 30,000 people housed in the first year. The winning candidate promised to house 17,000 people in the first year. Both of those are wildly optimistic.

How do we solve the other side of the problem, not just for the 40,000 people who are currently homeless, but for the people who are increasingly falling into homelessness? The pipeline into homelessness is the problem. We've got a deep and widespread housing crisis. You're on each of the Oversight Committees. What can ULI, the real estate industry, and other private sector actors do to help solve this housing crisis?

 Miguel Santana: Well, there has to be a declaration that that's our intent. Then, I think the balance of government needs to be changed. One person has a lot of power in the crisis. A councilmember has a lot of power in deciding whether or not they approve a project or not.

The best way to kill a project is by not returning a call. That's the most effective way of killing a project because if the bureaucracy doesn't have the blessing of a councilmember in an informal way, then the bureaucracy is going to put it on the bottom of the list. That's, frankly, the default setting. That needs to be taken out, so the ability to build by-right significantly increases.

Also, it needs to be so that a neighbor can't complain. If they do, too bad. I hate to be so blunt, but that's what it is going to have to take. We need to care more about housing people than we do the interest of one person. That's a cultural shift in the city, and it's not without loss. There is a loss that happens when you do that, but there's also loss when you don't. The biggest threat to our economy is the fact that people can't afford to live here. If you're growing a business, you have to decide if you can build a business and attract a workforce where people can't live.

 On a structural level, that needs to happen. We started seeing that happen already with Measure JJJ, which everybody opposed. It was universally disliked by the city, the chamber, and everyone but labor. On its own, it has done more to build affordable housing than pretty much any other intervention that has taken place.

Why did it do that? Because it created predictability. Developers want to know the rules and want to have a fighting chance with those rules. They understand that they have to have a PLA and a workforce training program. They understand they have to have embedded so many affordable housing units to be able to get the right to build this. Suddenly, there is development along transit-oriented areas.

 Sacramento, seeing the lack of progress locally, is pursuing their own interventions. Theirs are one-size-fits-all, which isn't always the appropriate way to go. Short of a solution locally, they are going to do that. If the city just established a way of achieving its own RHNA goals, it would be significant progress made.


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