Scathing New Audit Finds Deep Operational Failures at L.A.’s Top Homeless Outreach Agency

Tents belonging to homeless people are seen by new high-rise developments alongside a freeway ramp in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2019. (Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Tents belonging to homeless people are seen by new high-rise developments alongside a freeway ramp in downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 2019. (Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has failed to meet goals for placing people into permanent housing and for referring them to substance abuse and mental health treatment, according to a city audit released Wednesday.

Despite having more than doubled its number of outreach workers over the last two years, the agency missed seven of nine goals during the 2017-18 fiscal year and five of eight last fiscal year, auditors concluded.

Workers aimed to get 10% of the homeless people they assessed into permanent housing. But in the fiscal year that ended in June, they placed only 4%, the report found. The goal for placing people in shelters was 20%, but workers achieved only 14%.

While attributing some of the shortfalls to the underlying shortage of affordable housing and treatment resources in LA, the audit also criticized the city for setting fuzzy goals that weren’t linked to the scale of the homelessness crisis.

Authority executive director Peter Lynn said the city’s report was misleading because it only looked at measures that aren’t good at judging effectiveness.

“It ultimately says nothing about LAHSA’s outreach efforts, which contacted record numbers of our homeless neighbors in the year it studied,” Lynn said in a statement. He said the authority is working with “better data collection and metrics.”

Officials have declared homelessness a state of emergency in the nation’s second-largest city, where housing prices have spiked. Freeway overpasses are lined with tents, and it’s a common sight to see someone pushing a shopping cart filled with belongings through downtown streets.

While once largely confined to the notorious Skid Row neighborhood, encampments have spread citywide.

Heidi Marston, the authority’s chief program officer, told the Los Angeles Times that the agency “can’t place people in shelter or housing that has yet to be built or is blocked.”

She said federal privacy rules prevented it from accurately reporting mental health and substance abuse referrals, so the agency no longer uses those goals.

In its 2019 count, the authority reported that there were close to 60,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles County, with more than 36,000 of them in the city. All but about 25% live on the streets.

The audit faulted the authority for reporting it had placed 21,000 into permanent housing. The number include placements made by other agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as duplicates by counting individuals or families that fell in and out of homelessness during the year, the audit said.

City Controller Ron Galperin said the city and authority should revamp its goals to be understandable and specify the number of people expected to receive assistance, rather than using a percentage. The authority also should adopt a data-driven outreach system modeled after that used by police departments nationwide, including the LAPD, he said.

Marston said the authority is already doing that at the city’s Unified Homeless Response Center and that it has set better goals for data collection and reporting.

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