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Los Angeles Struggles To Contain Chronic Homelessness


Utah is very close to ending chronic homelessness in the state. It's a goal advocates set 10 years ago. The state committed to a philosophy known as Housing First - as in, give people a home first and then provide health care and job services later. Utah's success has made former homeless task force director, Lloyd Pendleton, a popular guy.

LLOYD PENDELTON: I get probably two to five calls a week now wanting to know how we did it, what's unique about Utah because it can be done.

MCEVERS: Now we're going to talk about whether it can be done on a much bigger scale. Here in Los Angeles County, there is the largest population of chronically homeless people in the country, more than 12,500 - that's six times more than Utah had when it adopted Housing First. LA first tested the Housing First model in the late '80s, but it has struggled with implementing it since. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been looking at that here in Los Angeles. And Kirk, I just got back from Utah and I can't help wondering, I mean, what's happened in Utah, can it be replicated here in LA?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: That's the big question, Kelly. I think the first major difference you've really got to consider when trying to compare the two is simply scale. Los Angeles is so vast and such a huge city.

MCEVERS: Right. And we know that since the recession, I mean, the number of homeless people has increased and has spread out far beyond the traditional areas in the center of the city, right?

SIEGLER: Exactly. So to get a sense for this, I paid a visit to a seaside neighborhood called San Pedro. It's mostly working-class, it's next to the port. And it's also about 25 miles from Skid Row, yet still in the city of Los Angeles. And like a lot of outlying neighborhoods here, until recently, you wouldn't have expected to see the big tent cities or the encampments lining the sidewalks of San Pedro. But now locals like Joanne Rallo say it's common.

JOANNE RALLO: The homeowners on the backside of this business can't even open up their windows in the summertime to get a breeze because of the smell of feces and urine that are just wafting through their windows.

SIEGLER: Rallo was eager to show me around. We arranged to meet at this newer encampment in a parking lot of a Chinese restaurant. But just as we were starting to talk, she got distracted and started looking over her shoulder.

RALLO: Sorry, I'm just kind of keeping my eye out. I don't know what that's all about - kind of don't feel comfortable being here right now.

SIEGLER: A petty drug deal appeared to be going down behind us.

SIEGLER: We can get in your car if you want.

RALLO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, let's do that (laughter).

SIEGLER: So we got in her Jeep Cherokee and drove a couple blocks over to the next encampment, this one out in front of the post office. You get the idea - there are a lot of them and people here just aren't used to it.

RALLO: That's fine that you want to shoot up and do drugs all day. But why should it, you know, be in a way where you're taking over the town and polluting things and, you know, just disrupting our quality of life?

SIEGLER: Now, Rallo told me she and her neighbors are fed up with what they say and has been inaction from City Hall and the police, so they're doing things themselves. They do a weekly community cleanup of the encampments. They pick up trash and haul away the shopping carts.

RALLO: We don't want to just kick them out and make them become another city's problem. It's not that at all. We have compassion for those homeless individuals who really fell on hard times and are trying to get on their feet and they're looking for a hand up, not a hand out.

SIEGLER: The rub here is that if you're homeless in San Pedro, you don't really have anywhere else to go. The nearest shelter is miles from here. And even in a working-class LA neighborhood, the rent is still high sky-high and some landlords are wary of Section 8 vouchers. Yet despite all of this, there is positive momentum toward tackling homelessness, in this corner of LA, at least.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's under the 110?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, no, that's over there at the 91.

SIEGLER: I stopped by a charity called Harbor Interfaith. It's the lead homeless services provider in this region. They're mostly publically funded. Here, the director Shari Weaver and her colleagues are scoping out a new encampment under a freeway on Google Street View. She says like in Utah, they are now doing direct outreach to the chronically homeless, doing health screenings and, most importantly, continually following up.

SHARI WEAVER: I can tell you that the work that we've been doing really is geared towards outreaching to the street-homeless population that's been homeless for a year or more and getting them into permanent housing.

SIEGLER: Now, here's where that scale comes in. Just in this corner of LA County, Weaver and her team are trying to assess 3,000 people. But they're making progress. Since the program started last year, they've reached nearly a thousand and placed more than 200 of them in permanent apartments.

WEAVER: If you have somebody that is living on the streets, the public cost for that is much greater than actually housing somebody.

SIEGLER: So Kelly, I mean, aside from just the difference in scale here, whether what Utah has done could work in a place like Los Angeles could come down to some creatively and money and where you spend it.

MCEVERS: Thanks, Kirk.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.