Chamber Launches Plan to Combat Homelessness
Gary Toebben, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and Elise Buik, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, are partnering on a new effort to fight homelessness.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Homelessness may be the greatest human tragedy in Los Angeles, but those working to combat the problem are taking a new tack to rally support: They want the public to know it is also bad for business and costly to taxpayers.

Homeless service providers have made the argument before, but now the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,600 members, is listening and spreading the word.

On Wednesday, May 27, Chamber President and CEO Gary Toebben announced that the Downtown-based organization will partner with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles to develop a set of homeless and housing policy recommendations for city and county elected officials. First up will be conducting a study to show the true costs of caring for the homeless.

“When politicians see business leaders taking a role, that’s when we really get traction,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

To kick off the effort, the Chamber hosted a three-hour panel discussion and the United Way flew in flew in experts in supportive housing (shelter that includes medical and drug treatment, job training and other services all under one roof) and business representatives from New York, Washington D.C. and Denver to discuss models they say are working.

Denver has reduced chronic homelessness by 36% in the past three years; Washington, D.C. saw a 42% reduction in 18 months in a one-square-mile area in its downtown; and Times Square has seen an 87% drop in four years.

Becky Kanis, director of innovations for the New York permanent housing provider Common Ground, said her organization’s housing initiative around Times Square was funded with $75,000 in seed money from JP Morgan Chase after a federal grant request was denied.

Los Angeles County has approximately 73,000 homeless people, more than any other county in the country, on any given night, according to a 2006 study by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Housing experts blame what they say is a fragmented governmental system in which the county and city have failed to work together on the issue. The lack of a systematic plan to end homelessness in Los Angeles is also partly the result of the region’s sprawl and size, said Orlando Ward, director of public affairs for the Midnight Mission.

“While it’s worked in those cities where the political leadership is bought in, we’re not there in Los Angeles yet,” Ward said. “You’ve got 15 city council members and the mayor, five county supervisors, so you’ve got 21 different views on the problem and what the solutions are.”

Eye Contact

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky likened the region’s approach in the past to someone who avoids eye contact with homeless people on the street, “as if to pretend they weren’t there.”

“We have failed to make eye contact with this problem,” said Yaroslavsky, who is trying to grow Project 50, a program to house Skid Row’s 50 most vulnerable homeless people, into Project 500.

Being the homeless capital of the nation is a black eye for the region and detrimental to business, said Helmi Hisserich, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s housing deputy. Villaraigosa’s office has committed $100 million from the city’s affordable housing trust fund since he was elected, but Hisserich said the mayor believes that the city needs private sector leadership (Villaraigosa was scheduled to speak at the event, but was “pulled away at the last minute,” Hisserich said).

The panelists argued that letting taxpayers pay to maintain the homeless with expensive public resources like jails, mental health facilities and emergency rooms costs more than putting those individuals into supportive housing.

“I don’t think that there was the data to make the case for why the business community should care,” said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust, a developer of permanent supportive housing. “But now we have the research.”

At least other cities do. The Denver Housing First Collaborative, a coalition of homeless service providers and public health agencies, tracked a group of chronically homeless individuals for two years prior to getting housed, and two years after. The study indicated that after moving into permanent supportive housing, emergency-related costs declined by 73%, or $31,545 per person.

Boston, Seattle, Atlanta and New York have done similar studies with similar results, though levels of savings varied. Los Angeles has not yet conducted such an analysis, but one is in the works.

The United Way recently retained USC professor Michael Cousineau, a public health expert, to develop case studies that will track chronically homeless individuals in Skid Row, Santa Monica, South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. The study is planned for release in October.

As the study is prepared, the chamber’s next step is to create a task force that will continue meeting and identifying policy recommendations, said Sam Garrison, the chamber’s vice president of public policy.

“We see ourselves as a steward of the region’s economic resources and quality of life and no one likes to see L.A. listed as the homeless capital of the United States.” Garrison said. “[A solution] is good for business and it’s good for everyone in L.A.”

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.