Though Veronica Lewis had grown up in South Los Angeles, it was not until she became a high school math teacher at a charter school for at-risk youth that she realized the depth of the challenges in her community.
“[Growing up] I was aware of gangs and stuff … but that wasn’t my world,” she said. “So teaching there opened my eyes to a lot of different social ills.”
That early experience helped her transition to taking a key role in what is arguably the city’s most pressing social challenge: tackling a homelessness crisis that continues to spiral upward. And while the work she has championed in South L.A. shows promise, it is only the first step in a protracted war against a seemingly intractable problem.
Lewis has long since moved out of the classroom, and now works as the division director of Special Services for Groups’ Homeless Outreach Program Integrated Care System (HOPICS), a social services organization offering housing, healthcare and trauma services to low-income residents in South Los Angeles. She also leads the Los Angeles-wide community advisory council of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the agency responsible for executing L.A.’s homeless census, the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.
And every other Friday Lewis can be found at Bethel A.M.E. Church for SPA 6 Homeless Coalition meetings, a group she founded and now co-chairs. Los Angeles County is broken up into so-called Service Provision Areas, or SPAs; South L.A. falls into the sixth.
Results of the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, released this month, show South L.A. avoiding the upward trend in homelessness that most other parts of L.A. County now face, suggesting that pilot programs launched there can continue to serve as a model countywide. This is especially true of South L.A.’s Coordinated Entry System (CES), a formal cooperative effort amongst service providers and the local government to streamline intake of homeless individuals by all service providers in an area so that there is essentially one master list to connect the homeless with resources available to them. The value of coordinated efforts is evident throughout the count, including in the substantial reduction in veteran homelessness.
Echoing trends coming out of the federal strategy to end homelessness and current research, Los Angeles has been bringing together government entities, nonprofit organizations and community leaders to create a multi-pronged approach, which begins with the implementation of CES countywide. However, leaders across the board acknowledge the need for actual vacant units to place people into once they are on the CES list, and some service providers fear that focusing so heavily on the coordinated entry system might sidetrack or delay efforts to actually build new housing, which is a crucial piece of the equation to curbing homelessness in Los Angeles.
2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Data
The results of the 2016 homeless count show a rise in homelessness similar to that identified in 2015, with a few exceptions. Los Angeles’ homeless population has now reached 46,874 individuals countywide. This is a 5.7 percent increase from the previous year. The increase is concentrated largely in the unsheltered homeless population, which has grown by 11.4 percent, while the homeless population using shelter beds has decreased by 7.4 percent. So overall, the homeless population in Los Angeles has become both larger and, it seems, more visible.
While the data this year shows trends of homelessness increasing, there are areas that have seen a reduction in homelessness. Based on LAHSA’s earliest reported data, veteran homelessness across the county has dropped by 30 percent, which LAHSA attributes largely to federal housing vouchers, and coordinated efforts between local government and federal entities to put these vouchers to work. There was also an 18 percent decrease in family homelessness since 2015.
While South L.A. continues to have the second largest concentration of homeless individuals in the county, with a one percent decrease it is one of only three regions that saw a reduction in its homeless population since 2015. The others are East L.A. (3 percent) and San Gabriel Valley (16 percent).
The reduction, while slight, may be a testament to efforts that Lewis and her colleagues have been building upon since 2013, when they saw data come out of that year’s homeless count that they believed did not accurately reflect the homeless population in their community. This was enough to start a conversation amongst leaders in South L.A. that would lay the groundwork for their coordinated entry system, according to Lewis.
What is Coordinated Entry?
The United Way initiated coordinated entry pilot programs in 2010. Since then, CES has been adopted as the first phase of the city and county homeless strategy, and is in the process of being rolled out in all service planning areas. Each area’s coordinated entry has a lead organization, which then oversees the execution of the system with a collaborative partner network of homeless service providers. In South L.A., that is Special Services for Groups’ HOPICS.
It is a system that has been emphasized on a federal level since the start of the Obama Administration. In 2010, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released “Opening Doors: A Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.”
The plan emphasizes the need for players across the system to work together, rather than as a “a set of independent and uncoordinated programs.”
USICH’s updated priorities on its website list “the development of coordinated entry systems to link families and individuals with the most appropriate assistance they need to prevent and end homelessness” as the top priority across the nation.
So on a functional level, service deliverers must play well with others if they hope to receive any piece of the federal funding connected with this effort, which has sometimes proven to be more easily said than done in a field with such limited resources as social service delivery.
However, research shows that collaboration between agencies is not only helpful simply because resources are limited, but also because expertise that each organization brings to the table varies. Some agencies, for example, have strong capacity for tracking numbers of clients served and evaluation, so they can more easily apply for grants by showing the data of what they are achieving.
Others, such as churches or more grassroots organizations, may be able to reach a more unique population that isn’t able to tap into services elsewhere. Many of those organizations are limited in terms of accessing funding, because they don’t have the resources to track the results of their work as closely. Having the structure in which they can work together, however, may just make the most of both strengths.
Trickle Down: CES Throughout Los Angeles
During the month of April, LAHSA hosted community meetings to address phase one of the city and county’s homeless strategy, and details of CES in each of the service areas across the county. South L.A.’s meeting was full of local community leaders who, far from their first rodeo, threw questions to one another and shared program details, ideas and concerns.
After the meeting, Lewis and her colleague Marion Sanders stayed in Bethel A.M.E. Church’s community room for the SPA 6 Homeless Coalition meeting. Sanders supervises the CES system that HOPICS coordinates in the region.
This is “where you have all of your homeless services providers, or anyone who impacts services in SPA 6,” Sanders said. “It’s our forum to be able to do a lot of community planning and regional coordination.”
She said that Lewis is the glue that holds everything together.
After meetings about the 2013 count, “we decided to continue to come, and whether it was two people sitting in a room with me or 20, I was there,” Lewis said. And slowly but surely, the SPA 6 Homeless Coalition solidified into the community voice it is today.
When the homeless strategy was announced in February 2016, SPA 6 had already been operating a coordinated entry system, as part of that United Way pilot effort, for almost three years.
“We did something that was unprecedented in the SPA and not just HOPICS but some of the other major homeless service players in the community,” Sanders explains. “We coordinated this system of care and put all of the infrastructure in place without it being funded.”
The system that HOPICS helped establish, along with Watts Labor Community Action Committee and Pathways to Home, Volunteers of America and others, continues to grow.
“We have some off-the-grid homeless service providers which are not traditionally funded by your LAHSA funders, city or county, etc.,” Sanders said. “These are like your faith-based folks that are kind of putting it together because they see the need.”
They also team up with the local Los Angeles Police Department’s homeless outreach officers to screen homeless individuals and get them into the CES.
Now, as policy-makers work to streamline solutions like this across the county, South L.A. is primed to continue moving forward. Because of its efforts, HOPICS has “been fortunate [to receive] city and county dollars around rapid rehousing for homeless individuals who have lower barriers but who need the financial assistance to be able to get into permanent housing,” Sanders said.
Beyond Coordinated Entry: The Housing Crisis
As community engagement continues around executing the homeless strategy’s first phase, the question of what happens after persists.
A coordinated entry system may bring more public dollars towards community efforts, because it implements the federal and local priorities. However, it does not directly address one of the biggest barriers across the county to ending homelessness: a lack of actual housing stock.
According to California Housing Partnership’s April 2016 report, “Confronting California’s Rent and Poverty Crisis: A Call for State Reinvestment in Affordable Homes,” every county in California has an affordable housing shortfall. In Los Angeles County, that shortfall totals 549,197 units.
It is an issue in SPA 6, which has not only its own residents in need of housing options, but now also has at-risk individuals from other areas attempting to utilize South L.A.’s limited affordable housing.
It is also a major issue on Skid Row, another area of the city where CES was piloted.
“On Skid Row alone there’s at least around 2,500 people who have been put in the CES system,” explains Eric Ares, community organizer and communications coordinator for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, and yet there is still no housing for them in sight. “Unfortunately it’s turned into another waitlist.”
As far as the homeless strategy is concerned, the housing-related components of the initial rollout focus on expanding housing subsidies, conducting studies, and recruiting philanthropic support around creation of new units. The actual building of units appears to still be theoretical.
So even if the initiation of CES is realized in every corner of the city, the final step of placing clients in housing simply is not within reach right now, even if every individual had the subsidies and vouchers they needed. At HOPICS, there are around 200 clients who have housing subsidies with no available unit to apply them to.
“It’s another set up,” Ares said. “Ultimately, the elephant in the room is there are no keys in people’s hands.”