The COVID-19 crisis has placed the homeless population at a higher risk of catching the virus, due to overcrowded shelters, lack of essential supplies like face masks and hand sanitizer, and limited access to food and bathrooms.
To help save lives, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has put together a COVID-19 recovery plan that focuses on rapidly moving 15,000 high-risk people experiencing homelessness into housing.
On May 26, at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting, LAHSA presented the details of its plan, which envisions a strengthened rehousing system that addresses racial inequity and is prepared to handle future crises. In a media briefing earlier that morning, LAHSA Interim Executive Director Heidi Marston shared the organization’s actions to date in responding to the public health crisis; its strategic plan to guide operations; as well as a vision for short-, medium- and long-term strategies.
“We know homelessness was a crisis long before COVID-19 came into the picture, but COVID-19 has accelerated the speed of our work and the need to maintain this crisis model,” Marston said. “It has helped us develop some best practices, but it has also required us to shift our focus—not only to people who are of a certain acuity score but those that are the most likely to become hospitalized or pass away should they contract the virus.”
The LA Rehousing Recovery Strategy will require a large-scale effort to acquire and lease property, and it will depend on continued emergency investments from local, state and federal government. It will also build out a new level of efficiency and real-time awareness of LA’s rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing inventory. The recovery plan elevates five key values: First, anyone who has been placed in emergency shelter during the crisis will not return to the street and instead be place in some form of interim housing, rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing.
Second, LAHSA has identified 15,000 of the most vulnerable members of the unsheltered population by age and medical condition and prioritized them for rehousing. Third, evidence has shown that more people have become homeless in the past year alone, so interventions to prevent continued inflow of new homeless people must be prioritized. Fourth, there is the need to build capacity across the system to facilitate scaling up quickly in public health emergencies to help better prepare for future crises. And last, there must be a prioritization on advancing racial equity in how LAHSA approaches and deploys all programs and interventions.
“We went from zero to 100 in a matter of days during COVID-19, and while that demonstrates the commitment and capacity of our system, it’s also not sustainable for us to do that every year,” Marston said. “We know that a crisis is going to come back and there will be something like COVID-19 in the future, so we have to focus on building that system capacity so we’re not having to ramp up that way every year.”
The rehousing efforts will be aided by the same strategic alignment within LAHSA that resulted in Housing Central Command (HCC), a collaborative effort that coordinates actions among city, county and federal agencies. Extending HCC’s coordinated approach will enable LAHSA to transition vulnerable occupants of Project Roomkey—which is providing shelter to more than 2,800 high-risk individuals at 31 hotels and motels across LA County—and other shelter residents into appropriate housing resources and permanent supportive housing at a faster rate.
“We have Department of Public Social Services workers at a number of our Roomkey sites to help enroll folks in Social Security and other programs so they have income coming in,” Marston said.
“We also have legal services coming on-site to provide services, and we’ve partnered with the DMV to help people get their IDs and paperwork done so they are ready for housing. We are really committed to these partnerships and maintaining them in the longer term.”
Marston also shared that LAHSA has identified six steps that will need to be taken to support its efforts and improve its current system: identify and acquire housing units and properties; increase ability to quickly match and assign available units to clients; dedicate staff to help people locate and move into units; establish an inventory management system to enable active tracking of available resources; buy and preassemble move-in kits at scale so residents have basic supplies; and create real-time awareness of housing units that become available in the next seven days.
Besides the rehousing strategy, intensified street outreach will also help other vulnerable homeless people by placing them into new or vacated Project Roomkey rooms. The plan envisions this increased support for people at the same time as it projects strengthening the systems that prevent and end homeless by calling for zoning reforms, safety net enhancements, workforce training coordination and legal services.
“We’re setting really bold goals here, and we recognize that,” said Marston. “We know it’s going to take a really big investment of resources and alignment to move our system in a way that’s much faster than we’ve moved before, but now is the time to do it. We have every reason to believe that we can do it and that we should hold ourselves accountable to meet the needs that we know exist. The reality is that we have people’s lives in our hands, and across the board we need to stay focused on our priority, which is saving lives right now.”