Reviewing LA's Homelessness Report, Pt. 1: Background on Housing Programs

This is Part 1 of a three-part post. Part 2 can be found here; Part 3 can be found here.

The City of Los Angeles just released its Comprehensive Homeless Strategy, and there's a lot of material to cover. The 237-page report is an impressive document not just for its apparent quality and exhaustiveness, but also the time frame within which it was developed—barely more than 3 months, which is a blistering pace even outside of the deliberative halls of government.

Since there's a lot to go through, I've gone through a few sections and would like to summarize for those unlikely to read the whole document. Before reading on, I recommend that readers check out Curbed's (surprisingly detailed and non-snarky) summary of the report's key messages; my own summary will be more focused, with this post specifically looking at the Housing section of the report.

Photo of Alejandro Varas, by Martin Schoeller. Image from the Comprehensive Homeless Strategy.

Why I'm Writing About the Housing Section

The authors of this report acknowledge that housing strategies account for the largest number of proposals as well as the vast majority of the cost associated with their recommendations. It's no coincidence that housing is such an integral component of the report, and I think the report itself best summarizes why:

The decades-long period of underbuilding housing in Los Angeles has contributed to the homelessness of individuals and families and, once homeless, made it difficult for those with vouchers or other benefits to gain housing. Underbuilding housing in the face of increasing demand led by continued population growth in the region has created extremely low vacancy rates. Supply side economics dictate that when demand exceeds supply, prices will rise. This rise has led to conditions where rents continue to increase to the point where low income individuals are paying more than fifty percent of their income on rent; are living in overcrowded, illegal housing; and are commuting long distances, increasing regional traffic, to avoid high housing costs in the urban core.
Low and moderate income Angelenos are a job loss, medical emergency or relationship dissolution away from homelessness. For those forced by personal or economic circumstance to move quickly, vacancy rates lower than New York City mean affordable housing is increasingly difficult to find, thus increasing the likelihood of becoming homeless in a moment of crisis. Los Angeles is last out of 20 major metropolitan regions in the country in producing housing. It is no coincidence that our City is experiencing the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.

To understand the approaches outlined in this report, we first have to be clear on what our options are, starting with the difference between sheltering and housing strategies.

Shelter versus Housing

The Housing section begins by making a distinction between a few different responses to homelessness, described briefly below:

1. Shelter — Shelters serve as a temporary refuge from living in public space. Examples include Emergency Shelter and Winter Shelters, which are only available to homeless individuals or families for short time periods. Because of its relative lack of success in helping homeless individuals move into a permanent, stable housing situation, the federal government and homeless advocates have shifted their focus away from this strategy.

2. Bridge Housing — As the name implies, this type of housing is an interim facility that serves homeless individuals and families as they transition into permanent housing. It is favored over shelter options because it involves one-on-one case management and is more successful at connecting homeless persons with other supportive services.

3. Housing — There are three primary housing types/programs, the first two of which are strongly favored over sheltering strategies because they best align with Housing First policies that have become the gold standard in homelessness reduction efforts. The appropriate program for each homeless individual or family is determined through use of the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT), which measures the priority for connecting the homeless person or family with housing and support services, as well as the acuity of their need and intensity of services they require.

  • Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) is the most comprehensive response, including non-time-limited housing (hence, "permanent") and a variety of support services to assist those with mental health disorders, disabilities, substance abuse problems, etc. It is reserved for those with high acuity scores in the VI-SPDAT. PSH is particularly well-suited to the chronically homeless, who "often incur significant public costs – through emergency room visits, run-ins with law enforcement, incarceration, and access to existing poverty and homeless programs." There are few pre-requisites, such as sobriety or mental counseling, that homeless persons must meet to be placed in Permanent Supportive Housing; rather, the goal is to provide a level of stability (Housing First) that provides a foundation upon which individuals can address these challenges.
  • Rapid Rehousing (RRH) is a less comprehensive housing strategy intended for homeless persons with moderate to lower levels of priority based on their VI-SPDAT score. RRH is time-limited and its scope of services is not as great, with a greater focus on programs that reinforce financial independence, such as employment assistance. Rapid Rehousing's goal is to assist homeless persons and families with their transition away from dependence on public services. RRH is also strongly favored by the report's authors, and is positioned as the alternative to Permanent Supportive Housing for lower-priority, lower-acuity homeless individuals and families.
  • Transitional Housing is a time-limited housing option that typically places conditions upon potential residents prior to move-in, unlike Permanent Supportive Housing. Retention rates are lower for Transitional Housing than for PSH and RRH programs, and the federal government and advocates have de-prioritized this type of housing strategy.

4. Prevention and Diversion — These strategies are not forms of housing assistance in a strict sense, but they are nonetheless essential programs that assist vulnerable persons with locating alternatives to entering the homeless system.

Part 2 is up next, where I review the efficacy and cost of each of these program types, as reported in the Comprehensive Homeless Strategy report.