Newsmaker of the Week

Larry Adamson
Vice Chair, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Sunday, November 26, 2006
(Television interview conducted November 20, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's Newsmaker is Larry Adamson, vice chairman of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
    Questions are paraphrased; answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What does the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) do?

Adamson: LAHSA is the joint powers authority between the city (of Los Angeles) and the county of Los Angeles, charged with responsibility of coordinating its homeless services throughout the county and the city services, as well.
    It actually has a very interesting beginning. Its origin comes from a lawsuit between the city and the county, in which each one was blaming the other for not doing their part in homeless services back in the early 1990s, and as a settlement out of that suit, LAHSA was created to be that authority to coordinate their services.

Signal: What government entity is responsible for providing services to homeless people? Let's take it to Santa Clarita here. Is it the city of Santa Clarita, or the county of Los Angeles, or somebody else?

Adamson: It's actually both. Each has their responsibility and their piece, although the county picks up a great deal of all the human services just by its charter. Cities have their responsibility, and do in fact have federal funding that comes through the city that is allocated for different types of homeless services.
    In the case of city of L.A. and the county of Los Angeles, the authority (LAHSA) itself, when it was put together — it has a governing board, and that governing board has five members who are appointed by the mayor of the city of Los Angeles and five members who are appointed by each of the five supervisors of the county.

Signal: You live in Santa Clarita and you are Supervisor Mike Antonovich's appointee to the LAHSA board.

Adamson: That's correct. Mike appointed me.

Signal: The last several years, we've had a nonprofit entity here in Santa Clarita, the Community Development Corp., that has operated a winter homeless shelter and will be doing so again, starting—

Adamson: Dec. 4.

Signal: Through when?

Adamson: March 15

Signal: Where will it be — the same place as last year?

Adamson: Same as last year, at the maintenance yard.

Signal: The Los Angeles County maintenance yard in the Golden Triangle area.

Adamson: Correct.

Signal: Where does LAHSA fit in to what this nonprofit entity does?

Adamson: As a winter shelter, the program and its definition and its requirements are in fact the product of LAHSA.
    LAHSA creates the contract and the contractual provisions that the charity, the nonprofit, has to follow, and provides the funding. The funding ... for that nonprofit to operate that shelter for the most part is provided through LAHSA, through the funding it receives from federal, county and state money.

Signal: Does the city of Santa Clarita pay LAHSA?

Adamson: No. Actually, that has been somewhat contentious here between the city and the county. Two years ago, the city provided a portion of the funds to operate the winter shelter. Last year the city refused to do so, and this year they have not been willing to contribute toward the shelter, either.
    Now, I say that, but I want to qualify: (The city has) provided some funds that are used for the case management portion of the winter shelter, which is provided by Lutheran (Social) Services. They've helped to fund Lutheran (Social) Services' activities, which are a little broader than just the winter shelter, but they do provide some money for that.
    But the actual moneys, the nearly $300,000 a year it takes to operate that winter shelter for that period of time, is provided by county funds.

Signal: Does LAHSA determine what kind of homeless services are provided throughout Los Angeles County?

Adamson: It is responsible for developing the programs to address the needs of the homeless. It has the responsibility in this case, with Santa Clarita and its agency (CDC), to provide the contractual provisions for what has to be provided by that agency (CDC) under the contract, and then it funds that and then monitors it to see if it's in compliance. It does select the agency. In this case, it is an open RFP, request for proposals, that go out, and then agencies are welcome to respond. In the Santa Clarita case, the CDC has been the sole responder to this shelter in this community.

Signal: It's the only one that has expressed any interest in operating a winter shelter.

Adamson: That's right. Here in Santa Clarita.

Signal: You awarded the contract to the CDC.

Adamson: Right. Now, there are 14 of these throughout L.A. County that are operated and funded through LAHSA.

Signal: Winter shelters?

Adamson: Winter shelters.

Signal: Where is the closest one other than Santa Clarita?

Adamson: Sylmar is the next closest winter shelter, and then you have to go to Glendale in the valley area, that has another winter shelter. They're spread out throughout the county. There are some out in San Gabriel Valley, some in Los Angeles, and some in South Los Angeles.

Signal: So if we didn't have a winter shelter here, people who wanted to use a winter shelter would have to go to Sylmar or — is there one in the Antelope Valley?

Adamson: There is one in Antelope Valley, although Sylmar would be obviously much closer — although I think both of them would be a pretty far walk.

Signal: Do you determine where it goes? We hear people complain that it's always in Canyon Country, and why can't it be in Valencia or somewhere else?

Adamson: We actually don't make that determination. That's the responsibility of the agency itself that is bidding on the project, to ultimately be able to come up with a location. Typically, not unlike what we have in Santa Clarita, it becomes a collaborative effort between the governmental agency and then that charity to come up with a location.
    But LAHSA has the final approval of the location, meaning that it has to meet the requirements to be able to provide the services, but it does not engage in the actual location itself.

Signal: Why is it only a winter shelter? Aren't homeless people homeless during the warmer months, from March 15 to Dec. 4?

Adamson: I think obviously the answer is yes. Homeless people are homeless people year-round, except for those who are able to get out of homelessness during that period of time. But for every one who goes out, there's another one that comes in. Winter shelter concepts began throughout the nation in response to a humanitarian cry that during these periods of inclemency, you've got to do something or people die out on our streets and in our communities. Obviously (that is) magnified on the East Coast more than it is on the West Coast, where the weather is substantially more harsh in the wintertime than it is here.

Signal: There probably re homeless people in New York who would like to come to California even if there is no winter shelter here.

Adamson: Well, I think we get a few of those, but New York has resolved it by having housing as a "right" in their communities. They actually have governmental agencies with the requirement to provide those shelters year round.
    We don't have that in California. But I think the agencies and city policy really will answer the issue of why we don't have year-round shelters.
    We have year-round shelters all throughout L.A. County. We don't have one in Santa Clarita, but I think a couple of years ago, this was a pretty hot subject with the city and the city government here, and I think the City Council made it clear that they didn't want one here.

Signal: On the one hand, we hear people say there aren't any homeless in Santa Clarita, and on the other hand a year ago or so, folks in Los Angeles got the idea that we had thousands of homeless people and we wanted to ship them to L.A. What's the truth?

Adamson: You can't be in denial that we don't have homeless people in Santa Clarita. We do. At the last LAHSA count, I believe the numbers were somewhere around 300 who are homeless on any given night in the Santa Clarita area. So we have ours, and I think it's foolish for us to sit back and listen to arguments that say there's no homeless in Santa Clarita. That's just not practical. There are. And there are homeless in every community throughout Southern California.
    We have 88,000 people homeless in Los Angeles County on any given night, and that 88,000 is spread out throughout the county. We all have our piece of it. I think there's a fear by a lot of communities of the homeless. They don't understand homeless, they don't understand how people can become homeless, they fear the homeless. And as a result of that, you have very, very strong NIMBYism types of mentality in most of the communities in Southern California. They realize homeless need to be cared for, but "not in my backyard."

Signal: Professionally, you operate a year-round shelter.

Adamson: I operate one of the largest in Los Angeles, in Skid Row of Los Angeles, the Midnight Mission.

Signal: How many people does it serve? Does it serve people from Santa Clarita when there is no winter shelter here?

Adamson: We actually serve people from all over the country, to be honest with you, who come in our doors or are referred to us by family members who say: I've got somebody who needs help.
    Homelessness is a very complex issue, because it deals with humans, and humans are complex. There is no one single reason why people are homeless. There's a multitude of reasons that affect people and how they end up in homelessness.
    So downtown at the Midnight Mission, we really have a series of things that go on there; it's not just a homeless shelter. We are the largest privately-funded drug and alcohol recovery program for the homeless of Los Angeles. I have about 300 people who live in that facility who are in transition out of drug and alcohol addiction. So their tenure in my facility is fairly long, a year or two they may be in my program as they're getting their lives back together and being able to bridge back to community and establishing sobriety.
    I also have about 150 every night who walk through our doors who are in fact what you would say, "emergency overnight sheltering," where we bring them in and give them somewhere that's safe for them to sleep and get them out of the elements and off of our streets downtown
    So we actually have two things going on within my facility on any given night.

Signal: Whether it's the 300 or so homeless here in the SCV or the people you serve on Skid Row: What percentage are long-term homeless—

Adamson: Chronically homeless.

Signal: — as opposed to somebody, maybe their house burned down last night, or maybe a woman is a victim of domestic violence and she needs a place to stay. As a percentage, how many have an immediate, short-term need, and how many are strung out forever?

Adamson: The chronic homeless issue is a growing number, and as we look at those who end up in the Skid Row area, which is kind of the large concentration of homeless within L.A. County, about 30 percent of the people we deal with would be defined as being chronically homeless.
    Now, there is a federal definition for that, and I'm not going to bore your listeners with how the technical definition works, but about 30 percent of those have had long bouts of homelessness. They've been homeless at least a year, continually, whatever. Then we have somewhat of a transient population of homeless people who fall in and out of homeless during the year because they're living right on the bubble of existence.
    In fact, that 88,000 number I gave you, if you use the number — how many people actually experienced homelessness in L.A. County during any given year — that number jumps to 225,000 people. You can do the math. That's about how that works out.
    Now in downtown for example, Skid Row, we have about 8,000 people who are defined as being homeless on any night in a 50-square-block area of downtown Los Angeles. Not all of those are people lying out on streets or in alleyways. If you're housed in a shelter just overnight, or if you're in one of the hotels downtown for a night-by-night existence there, you're considered to be homeless.
    What happens is, if your money runs out, you are back out on the street until you're able to find an additional source of money, then you're back into a place, then you're back out.

Signal: Why is the number of chronic homeless growing?

Adamson: There are a couple of reasons for that. One, as populations grow, those who are at the bottom rung of our ladder of existence, those numbers just grow by nature. The other is that we have not, as a community, as a county, as a city, had any kind of comprehensive plan for dealing with homeless, and as a result, we really haven't added capacity for a long period of time.
    So as our population grows, as we see the ebbs and flows of economic issues — and clearly, some of the issues that drive people into homelessness — the breakdown of the traditional family structures that create more people into foster care and others — when they come out, they're very, very susceptible to falling into homelessness.

Signal: Who in Los Angeles County is doing it well? Who is providing services that are getting people off the homeless rolls — other than the Midnight Mission, that is?

Adamson: Well, I think we do, yeah. Self-serving, but I think we do, and I think there is a number of agencies that do.
    But again, when you say: Why is it growing? — my capacity is 300. There are 88,000. It's a big, big problem, and we are going to have to get a lot more creative and spend, frankly, a lot more money than what we spend in this county if we're going to really make a difference.
    I think your viewers have probably heard, there have been lots of efforts that — homeless has really elevated in the public consciousness now. You've got the county that's coming out with an $80 million plan to expand service centers and put in triage centers to try to address the issues. We have the city (of Los Angeles), I think within the next week or two, that's going to roll out a plan that they've been working on. And I think that's good. How we coordinate those efforts and make sure that we really are making a difference for the people is really going to be the challenge.

Signal: Skid Row is a place where homeless people know to go. Here in Santa Clarita, we hear people say that if you built it, they will come; if we have a shelter, all sorts of homeless people from outside Santa Clarita will flock to it. How true is that?

Adamson: You know, I don't think so. They're already here, first of all. You've got 300 or so who are already here. If you were able to care for them and get them out of homelessness, and able to close down your shelter because there was no more, I think you'd be the proudest community in America if you could do that.
    When we take a look — for example, this last homeless survey that was done last year, when the question was asked, "Where did you come from before you became homeless? Where were you before?" — it dispelled a couple things that I think people really need to know.
    One, L.A. County creates its own homeless people. They aren't coming from New York, they aren't coming from Florida, they aren't coming from Michigan, wherever. It's a very small minority of them who come here who say, "I was in Michigan, Detroit, and I hitchhiked and I ended up here and now I'm homeless." That's almost nonexistent.
    When asked, where did they come from? Most of them came from our own communities. There are old people who have fallen out of that network, can't support them or they're not capable of being supported, and so they fall into that. And clearly, in homelessness, there are a couple of things that are driving the majority of it — mental illness is driving the big issue.
    We made a decision as a country, as a society, to close down mental institutions, so we've created two things: We've created mental institutions in our jails, because that's where a large number end up, and we have a lot of them who end up into the homeless issues, people who in fact, if services were available, and given the advancements in pharmaceuticals and treatment today, could be productive members of our society.
    But we've got to figure out a way to treat them other than telling them, "You have the right to be out on the street by yourself," because they can't make those decisions realistically.

Signal: What percentage of the homeless population suffers from mental illness? What percentage are drug or alcohol abusers?

Adamson: Mental illness I'll address first, and then I'll give you a more complicated question with the drug and alcohol. But of the mentally ill in the last survey — this is self-reporting, and then I can verify it because I run an agency, and we have people coming in every day, applying to try to get in. So I can kind of verify the numbers are fairly accurate.
    About 35 percent of the people that we see in downtown Los Angeles — and I suspect it'll be fairly consistent throughout — would be easily recognizable as having at least some form of mental illness.
    Now, when you talk about drug and alcohol addiction, the number jumps way up. But you also have to understand that some of the mentally ill are also now drug- and alcohol-addicted — and I'm not sure which came first, the mental illness or the drug addiction. I will tell you if you stay in drug addiction long enough, I think you will suffer ultimately from some mental illness. And I suspect that, from what we see, that if you are mentally ill genetically, that you probably will be very susceptible to becoming involved in drug and alcoholism. If you don't like yourself and you don't like your life, hiding behind drugs and alcohol becomes very easy.

Signal: You live in the Santa Clarita Valley and you go to work in a place where you see people living in cardboard boxes. We don't have people living in cardboard boxes in front of the Valencia mall, for instance. If we have 300 homeless people in the Santa Clarita Valley, where are they?

Adamson: I haven't seen the studies, but what I hear from the studies is that we have a great deal of them who concentrate along our riverbanks and live in those areas and move around under the bridge near Magic Mountain and some of those areas. So they're not really visible.
    Part of that is because we have a fairly low toleration. Law enforcement does enforce moving people around, so they go and they hide quite a bit. But based on the articles that The Signal has run and others where they've interviewed, that appears to be the bigger concentration. Then we have those who find very creative doorways and behind buildings and other places to stay, as well.
    Homeless people, for the most part, at least behavior-wise, don't particularly like to be out in view. They would much rather be hidden if they can find a place to hide that they think is safe for them.

Signal: Something on the order of 25 people were staying at the winter shelter on any given night the last couple years.

Adamson: That's the danger of averages. I've actually looked at Santa Clarita very closely, because it's in my area of responsibility. Winter shelters gear up in their first three or four weeks. Until people (who are) homeless know they're there, they don't have as many. If you actually take a look at Santa Clarita, at CDC, they averaged about 26, I think it was about 26 people on average. If you take out the first month and you take a look from that month on, they were up near 40 people. So it jumps way up.

Signal: Whether 25 or 40 or 75, if there are 300 people here, why are most of them not going to the winter shelter?

Adamson: Because it's not easy. You've got one single location; you've got to find a pickup point to get picked up to be brought there. Santa Clarita is a pretty large geographic area, and you've got a number of areas that it looks like homeless are (living). For some of them, if they can tolerate the weather — and we're not having a particularly difficult winter for them to tolerate — they're going to stay in the area where they're comfortable.

Signal: Shelter obviously isn't the only thing that these people need. What are some of the services that are being provided here in the Santa Clarita Valley?

Adamson: A winter shelter is a winter shelter. It's temporary, overnight emergency (relief); 6 o'clock in the morning they're put back out on our streets and off they go.
    What I do like is, Lutheran (Social) Services does provide case management intervention with all the people — it's obviously voluntary, and for at least some of the stats that I've seen, they've done a pretty good job of getting a number of people off of our streets and into either transitional kinds of housing, or in some cases, they've gotten them into some permanent housing.

Signal: Have they found them jobs?

Adamson: Some jobs, yes. And I think that's important, and it's been very helpful here in this valley. You've actually had a much higher percent of success out of CDC than we see in some of the central city, but I think you had a little bit different makeup of the homeless population.

Signal: Do we have homeless kids here?

Adamson: We do, and CDC handles those through the winter shelter, but they don't stay at the shelter. They actually are vouchered into hotel rooms, and they're segregated so that you don't have them in the main population — with primarily a male transient population. CDC has a portion of their budget for families, so when a woman with children shows up to the shelter in need, they can voucher them into a hotel and put them into the hotel and then work with Lutheran (Social) Services to try to get them to counseling and get them into a shelter that is transitional, or more permanent situations.

Signal: And LAHSA funds the hotel rooms?

Adamson: Correct.

Signal: Would the people who are involved in providing homeless services like to have a year-round shelter here?

Adamson: Absolutely. Three years ago, they made a proposal to try to buy a location. The city put together a task force, came back with some sites, and then ultimately said no, none of this works.
    And I think I'm not speaking out of turn: The City Council had a fairly public debate over this issue and came down fairly strongly that there would be no permanent shelter in Santa Clarita. "We'll support the winter shelter temporary, but we don't want a permanent one" for the reasons you've already mentioned about that.

Signal: So you don't buy into the argument that a permanent, year-round shelter would be an enabler?

Adamson: Oh, I don't think so at all. We have lots of shelters throughout Southern California, and that's not the case at all. I think you would serve those who — frankly I think a lot of us here in Santa Clarita are in denial that we have anything to do with homelessness; that they're just people moving through. That's not true.

Signal: Is Santa Clarita unique in that way? Or are other cities in denial, too? What are other cities doing when faced with the homeless shelter question?

Adamson: Well, it depends. Some have embraced it. Long Beach and others have embraced it, put together a pretty comprehensive plan and are doing a good job. And then there are cities like the mayor of West Covina, who said openly and very publicly, "There's nothing going to be put in my city." So you have those different political views about this.
    I think frankly, you don't judge a community by how many millionaires it creates. I think you judge a community by what it does with those who are on its lower rung of the ladder, and how it treats those. If you're going to elevate a society, you've got to elevate the lowest things, not just the highest.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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