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Housing First has failed. The homeless crisis in California demands a swift, effective response.

A recent article I read asked, “Is a philosophy destroying Los Angeles?” The answer is a resounding yes, unfortunately. I’ll never forget meeting with other leaders of Skid Row housing and service agencies, along with Philip Mangano, the architect of what was first called “Housing First” during the era of President George W. Bush, a meeting at which rational thought and practice was absent. I remember being scolded for trying to stop area hospitals from dumping patients on Skid Row, because these agencies would “run out of guests to serve” if Union Rescue Mission succeeded in shutting down the flow of people devastated by homelessness from at least one source of the flow. I thought that was the goal. Phil Mangano went on to share his Housing First model, utilized to move those chronically devastated by homelessness off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. His theory postulated that as these homelessness “anchors” move into housing, others would “magically” follow. I didn’t understand or believe his theories then and I certainly don’t now. What I do understand, because I see it every day, is the truth. The theory didn’t work. In fact, the opposite occurred. A movement was launched to house a few, while leaving countless others to suffer and die on our streets. The theory was proclaimed the silver bullet to end homelessness. I remember Housing First marketers saying things like, “You recovery folks with archaic missions have managed this homelessness problem. We’re going to solve it!” Unfortunately, not only has this shift failed to solve the problem, it has also failed to manage it. The focus on housing a few at a time left many on the streets for far too long. These men, women and children have led to the most devastated, chronically homeless in the highest numbers ever. Street homelessness has skyrocketed 71% in states like California, which doubled down on Housing First in the last 10 years. I remember a decade ago when I was called before foundations and church denominations to defend our mission’s tried and true recovery approach as they determined where to place their funds in the future — Housing First or immediate, transitional housing and recovery. It was a binary decision — there was no both. It was one or the other. We won some and lost others. Millions of dollars were lost from immediate housing approaches to the Housing First model, as many nonprofits shifted their mission and followed the money. As Va Lecia Adams Kellum recently remarked, “We lost many good transitional housing and recovery beds” because of Los Angeles’ over-emphasis on Housing First. Per-unit housing costs soared to unsustainable levels (as much as $500,000 to $800,000 per unit, according to the Los Angeles city controller). These extremely expensive units not only cost too much but have also taken too long to develop and build, with an average length of development being four years. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, five people per day die of complications of homelessness (2,000-plus people per year) or 8,000 precious human beings during the time it takes to develop a unit. Let me cite one example. Measure HHH, a city of Los Angeles tax, was implemented six years ago, to develop 10,000 units for, at the time, 50,000 people devastated by homelessness in Los Angeles County — a focus only on meeting 20% of the need. To date, 2,000 units have been built, 20% of the 20% needed. This endeavor barely made a dent in real need, while leaving 50,000 precious souls to struggle on Los Angeles’ streets. These hard to come by, prohibitively expensive, unsustainable units allow alcohol and hard drugs, gang activity and intimidation to occur, resulting in more chaos on Skid Row. Our current policies support and sustain the cartels. Yet, we are building more on Skid Row and adding more density to an already high-density location, that’s also the nation’s highest crime area, according to Forbes magazine. We need a new approach now. Every strategy for addressing homelessness, immediate, intermediate and long term with a focus on recovery and mental health assistance, must be welcomed back. Housing needs to be immediate, innovative, affordable and sustainable, without a huge tax burden levied on the public. It’s clear that the Housing First theory has failed. Those of us who work on this issue every day see it. We need the “experts” to catch up. Rev. Andy Bales leads the Union Rescue Mission.


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