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Homelessness and the DMV


When I was in graduate school in the mid-1980’s, I took a course in project management.  We used real-life projects as case studies.  At the time I was taking the class, the California DMV was rolling out its new call-in appointment service.  Before then, if you needed to go to the DMV, you went to a local office and hoped the line wasn’t out the door.  The appointment system was supposed to reduce wait times by evenly spreading the workload throughout the day.  The only problem was the DMV forgot to add phone lines and staff to answer the calls.  Customers encountered busy signals and long wait times; many hung up and just went to the nearest office without an appointment. The project was an administrative and public relations disaster and took months to correct. It is little wonder my class studied it as an example of a failed project.

Apparently, L.A. local government has learned little in the 40 years since the DMV debacle. Read almost any story about the latest failure of our homelessness programs, and you find the same excuses: insufficient staffing, unanticipated red tape, lack of capacity, and plenty of unintended consequences. In each instance, anyone with even basic project management skills should be asking themselves “What were they thinking? Why didn’t they know about this before rolling out the program”?

For example, a recent LAist story exposed the failure of HOPICS, a local nonprofit, to pay the rent for formerly homeless people in dozens of apartment complexes across the city, resulting in evections for many residents. Rather than holding HOPICS accountable, LAHSA parroted the organization’s excuses for its incompetence, including the eternal “shortage of qualified case workers”. When preparing contract requirements, one of the basic duties of a public sector manager is to ensure the proposed contractor has sufficient resources, including personnel, to meet the contract’s provisions.  Why didn’t LAHSA’s contract managers take the fundamental and simple step of ensuring HOPICS had sufficient staff before awarding the contract? Once they discovered HOPICS couldn’t meet the requirements, why didn’t LAHSA’s contract managers demand corrective action or cancel the contract?

When Mayor Bass rolled out Inside Safe, placements were being made at a glacial pace. The mayor and her homelessness czar, Mercedes Marquez, blamed red tape and federal requirements for the slovenly rate of housing.  But the mayor had been touting her plans for Inside Safe months before the election. She was a Congressperson so she should have been familiar with the requirements for federal housing funding, especially since it is the most pressing issue in the city. Certainly, Ms. Marquez, as an expert on homelessness and housing, should have known what the requirements were.  However, it took several more months for Bass to negotiate some exceptions to the government’s requirements.

Even now, after almost a year, Inside Safe has housed only 255 people for a cost of $67 million to date.  When Los Angeles Magazine asked the Mayor why the number of permanent placement is so low, she cited a staffing shortage of case workers. Just as in my DMV case study, Bass and the city failed to build the infrastructure needed to properly support Inside Safe before implementing the program.

On December 14, LAist published an excellent overview of the problems plaguing homelessness performance numbers in Los Angeles.  The article shows how the fragmented authority among agencies leads to inaccurate and duplicate client counts.  The article describes how easily a single person may be counted more  than once as he or she transitions through the system.  Someone may enter a LAHSA-managed shelter and be counted as “sheltered”; then he or she may move under HACLA’s authority when moved to an apartment and be counted as “housed”.  If that person moves into new HHI-funded housing, they fall under the City Department of Housing’s program and may be counted yet a third time. No program is responsible to the others, so the person is counted three times.  In addition, the article describes the poor job LAHSA does counting people in its own shelters. Only 59 percent of Inside Safe’s data on people entering the program matched what was in LAHSA’s system.  When it comes to permanent housing and program exit data, LAHSA’s performance is even worse:  four percent and zero percent, respectively.  Exit data is especially important because it informs agencies on vacancy rates in their facilities and  could be used to tell them why people leave the system.

As you might expect, the agencies defend such incredibly deficient performance with the usual excuse: the shortage of field and intake workers trained in the technology used to track clients.  Again, we are left asking why proper training and workflow analysis wasn’t done at the front end of the program, so trained employees would be in place before the programs were implanted. The huge amounts of taxpayer funds expended--$250 million just for Inside Safe and $1 billion for the City’s overall homeless response—demand sufficient internal controls to ensure funds are being used to maximum benefit.  Instead, programs are implemented with great public fanfare and nearly no preparation or coordination.

In a more recent of example of poor planning, on December 19, the County Department of Mental Health won approval from the Board of Supervisors for a two-year delay in implementing the state-mandated CARE Court system.  Once again, the BOS accepted DMH’s excuses for being unprepared, even though, according to the Department’s fiscal year 2023-24 budget, funds have been allocated to support the program. No Board member questioned department executives as to why they hadn’t prepared for a state program they knew was coming and for which they had sufficient funding. This decision is particularly outrageous because it denies services to those who are most likely to harm themselves or others because of untreated mental illness or serious substance abuse problems. The consequences of rubber-stamping DMH’s lethargy will be more cases like the one described by the LA Times, where a father cannot get the care his son so desperately needs.

When it comes to unintended consequences, there are too many examples to cite. I and others have already written about the consequences of allowing recreational vehicles to “temporarily” park on city streets during the pandemic, and how that measure morphed into a self-created crisis of RV encampments proliferating throughout the city, dumping human waste into the storm drain system.  Now we find the city’s mania to allow unbridled development masquerading as affordable housing results in some low-income renters losing their homes. As described in this L.A. Times article, tenants in rent controlled apartments are losing their homes as larger affordable developments push them out.  Even though they are offered relocation packages, the money doesn’t cover the costs of renting more expensive market-rate apartments or relocating farther away where rent is lower. As an incentive to builders, many affordable housing projects require relatively few units to be below market, the theory being the market rate units will cover the lower revenues from the less costly units.  However, large builders have tools like “cash for keys” to buy out low income renters relatively quickly and re-rent the units at a higher rate.

As I wrote in Panic City, poorly researched, disorganized programs and decisions made in a vacuum are the hallmark of poor leadership.  The lack of leadership is the root cause of knee-jerk decisions and the refusal to take corrective action in the face of obvious failures.  Local officials know things aren’t working.  The LAist article quotes the Mayor: “The data is process-oriented — how many people came into housing,” she said. “It’s not outcome oriented, meaning: How many people stayed in housing and what happened to them four to five months down the line? That data is not available.” And yet nothing changes.  LAHSA continues to collect hundreds of millions of dollars while it follows the same model it always has.  The City and County continue to follow divergent paths to homelessness, denying unhoused people both housing and services.

At least the DMV, as flawed as it may be, recognized its mistakes in its phone-in appointment system.  It paused the program, built the needed infrastructure, and reintroduced it. In Los Angeles, leaders refuse to do the mundane yet vital work that will lead to successful homelessness programs: revamp hiring practices to speed recruitment; provide clear goals and expectations so employees and organizations know their mission; eliminate organizational silos focused on process over outcomes; create a culture of accountability instead of protecting agency turf.  And stop doing what you know doesn’t work.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)




Tim Campbell

December 25 2023

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