Head of LA's homeless agency stepping down, calls current situation a 'crisis'

With 60,000 homeless people on the street in LA County, no one would deny this is a crisis. Today Peter Lynn, the leader of LA’s Homeless Services Authority, announced he is stepping down after five years in the position. Lynn made no secret of the fact that he has been worn out by the job trying to deal with a problem that has only gotten worse during his tenure:

“Boy, these have felt like some long five years,” he said in an interview last week. “I mean I have really enjoyed this, this role and this gig and I have also felt quite a lot of wear and tear from it.”…

Homelessness has increased a total of 33% during Lynn’s tenure, precipitating a public reaction that has produced millions of dollars of new tax revenue but also growing frustration with the lack of visible results.

In an “exit interview” with KCRW, Lynn said the situation in LA was a crisis:

Is there anything more specific you can say about what has been hard?

Homelessness in Los Angeles is at crisis proportions. And the housing affordability here has been driving people into homelessness at unprecedented levels. And you know, frankly, we don’t have the resourcing yet commensurate to the need. We’ve voted in new measures, and we are not keeping pace with the number of people falling into homelessness at this point. The expectations are very high, as they should be. There’s a lot of strain. We’ve all grown very, very fast. This agency is five times the size it was when I got here. Over five years, we’ve been able to permanently house more than 80,000 people out of homelessness. And there are still more people on the sidewalks.

Officially, homelessness was up 12 percent in LA County this year, but LA uses a point-in-time survey similar to the ones used in other cities up and down the west coast. Last month the NY Times reported that the actual number of homeless people in San Francisco is probably double what the annual count there shows. It’s not clear if LA is similarly under count. Lynn was also a champion of the idea that the real crisis of homelessness is primarily about lack of affordable housing, a decision which pleased local activists.

Elise Buik, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said Lynn “has dedicated his life to this work, and L.A. County is a better place because of it.”

He led the effort to “build up the coordinated and integrated approach we’ve always needed,” she said. “He also helped drive the conversation about how racism is intertwined with homelessness, and he elevated our housing affordability crisis as the key headwind that we face.”

When his agency shared data with city officials earlier this year he presented a slide which said 71 percent of homeless in LA do not have a substance abuse or mental problem.

But a recent investigation by the LA Times found that figure was entirely misleading. In fact, the Times found that 67 percent of LA’s homeless had either a mental condition or a substance abuse problem. That figure is still lower than the results of a recent UCLA Policy Lab study that found about 3/4 of unsheltered homeless people (the people you see on the street) have substance abuse and mental health problems. What Lynn did was join in with the activists who routinely try to minimize these problems in favor of a more politically acceptable answer. Here’s how the LA Times reported it in October:

At a time when cities and counties are struggling to respond to a growing number of street encampments, the UCLA study and Times analysis raise questions about whether government officials are taking the right approach and doing enough for people on the street who have little hope of getting into housing anytime soon…

Advocates for homeless people tend to not focus their messaging on mental illness, disabilities or substance abuse out of concern that doing so unfairly stereotypes and stigmatizes those without a home.

Briefing The Times on this year’s homeless point-in-time count prior to its release, Peter Lynn, executive director of the homeless authority, defended the agency’s statistics on homeless people with disabilities and substance abuse issues. He attributed the idea that the numbers should be higher to perception bias.

Like other local and state officials, he has portrayed the homeless population as being much like the wider population of housed Angelenos.

There’s no evidence that Lynn’s departure has anything to do with the LA Times piece, but it should. His agency was giving the city misleading, politicized data designed to please activists rather than tackle the problem as it actually exists. Lynn will be replaced by Chief Program Officer Heidi Marston. It will be interesting to see if she follows the same path or takes a new approach that takes the LA Times investigation into account.