DTLA—Shock waves rippled through Los Angeles in the wake of the recent Homeless Count that reported a 16% rise in homelessness in the city and a 12% increase countywide in 2018. Political leaders have struggled to respond, alternately accepting some blame, saying figures are worse elsewhere in California, and searching for new revenue streams. Just last week Mayor Eric Garcetti touted the $124 million in state funds allocated to the city — a 46% increase from last year — to address homelessness.
The increase is welcome, and the attention being paid to homelessness by Garcetti and others is necessary and maybe even admirable, but the fact is, this situation is getting worse, not better. The staggering numbers and the tent-cluttered sidewalks make it clear that no one has his or her arms around the situation. Even worthy advances are crushed by more people winding up on the streets.
The biggest barrier to solving the problem is how complicated it is. There are innumerable causes and no quick solution. We need someone to pull the myriad pieces together and treat homelessness like a public health emergency. For this is unequivocally a public health emergency.
It’s time for Los Angeles to chart a new course. It’s time for Los Angeles to bring in a Homelessness CEO, to give this individual a budget and real authority free of political meddling, and then to get out of the way.
Los Angeles Downtown News has called for establishing this position before. We’re not the only ones asking for change; City Attorney Mike Feuer in 2017 cited the need for a new approach in leadership, calling, in his words, for “someone who is tantamount to a FEMA director who is terrific at logistics and execution, who is in charge — and everyone knows it.”
That position doesn’t exist. Sure, Garcetti has tried harder than any previous mayor, and he has staffers who focus full-time on homelessness, but they’re anonymous to most Angelenos. Instead, we need someone more powerful, more prominent and far more independent. We need a leader.
A Homelessness CEO — not a czar or executive director, but a true chief executive officer with broad decision-making and agenda-setting power — must be able to assess needs both on a regional level and in individual communities, and speak freely on what has worked and what hasn’t. The person must set policy and make decisions that will in some cases be counter to the wishes of elected officials. The only way this happens is if the Homelessness CEO doesn’t have to fear for his or her job by political whim.
A formula and oversight for the position must be worked out. Maybe the CEO reports to a prominent board of directors, yet still has authority to make decisions, like at Metro. Maybe he or she answer to a citizens panel.
Funding and staffing need addressing, as do questions of how a CEO combines existing efforts and budgets, especially money from the city and county. There are many ways this could bog down. Letting that happen would be a mistake.
Politicians are loathe to give up power, but the presence of nearly 60,000 homeless people in L.A. County is clear evidence that old methods are not working. A new approach is required.
Copyright 2019 Los Angeles Downtown News