L.A. County Board of Supervisors takes bold step to reduce chronic homelessness

L.A. County Board of Supervisors takes bold step to reduce chronic homelessness

 Annie Lainer Marquit is a Staff Attorney at Public Counsel Law Center

Section 8 housing choice vouchers are a critical tool to reduce chronic homelessness in Los Angeles. They give people at greatest risk of homelessness two of the things they need most: a ticket off the streets and services to help them stay off. That’s why the Home for Good action plan proposed to set aside 10% of Section 8 resources for the homeless population and to people who wind up in a decades-long cycle of perpetual homelessness.

So when the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted recently to make small, but significant changes to reduce barriers to housing homeless people with Section 8 vouchers, that should have been cause for celebration, right? "We're doing this to try to get homeless off the street," said Emilio Salas, the Los Angeles County housing authority's deputy executive director told the L.A. Times.

We think so. But to some critics of the 4-1 vote it was putting “convicted felons” against “law-abiding citizens” in a race for vouchers.

With an issue this important, it’s important to know the facts. What the County really did was make sure that people who are chronically homeless with minor criminal records can also qualify for Section 8 housing.

Why does that matter? People with histories of homelessness and mental illness are far more likely to have greater contact with law enforcement, including being on parole or probation, as a result of life on the street, disability, or substance abuse and addiction. Often the offenses which would exclude them from obtaining a voucher are non-violent. Studies have shown that criminal history is not a predictor for future housing stability for homeless adults living with disability – in fact when they get supportive housing with health, mental health, and drug treatment services, 85 percent of people who are chronically homeless stay permanently housed. Modifying the eligibility standards for homeless applicants will allow homeless individuals most in need of housing to obtain a voucher and get off the streets.

Before the 4-1 vote, people on parole or probation simply could not qualify for a Section 8 voucher. What the Board did was remove that automatic ban for people applying for a voucher set aside for homeless individuals and families. The HACoLA Section 8 voucher eligibility criteria also forbids admission to the program for anyone who has engaged in criminal activity during the three years prior to admission – the Board of Supervisors voted to reduce this criminal “look-back” period to two years for the homeless set-aside program.

Let’s put this in perspective. The County Housing Authority, has around 22,000 vouchers available, approximately 3 to 4 percent of which are set aside for homeless families and individuals. (Some cities such as New York, Portland, and Seattle do much more – 15% or more for homeless families, but that’s another story.) Individuals and families who have a voucher from this set-aside are offered services to help them retain their housing.

For anybody who’s been working to fix chronic homelessness in Los Angeles, there’s no debate. That’s why it’s in the 2012 update of the Home for Good action plan, which was signed by three members of the LA County Board of Supervisors and dozens of other local elected and community leaders.

The policy change does not give priority to felons and parolees over other needy people. Instead, it simply removes a barrier that was making it difficult for some of the County’s most vulnerable residents – chronically homeless people – to find a permanent home.

Instead of fighting about who deserves Section 8 more, we need to unite around the goal of how to use it better to reduce chronic homelessness. That’s a much better idea than letting people who are trying to put their criminal past behind them fall back through the cracks, and back into our criminal justice system.


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