L.A. Puts Chronically Homeless In The Front Of Housing Line Homeless-services providers in Los Angeles County are gathering data on the homeless population and ranking people by vulnerability. The goal is to get the most in need into permanent housing quickly. The "housing first" approach has been used in cities nationwide, but it has its critics, even among other advocates.

L.A. Puts Chronically Homeless In The Front Of Housing Line

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OK, this is good news. Homelessness has been on a steady decline across the United States. That's despite the recession and a slow jobs recovery. Many cities have ramped up programs to battle homelessness and turned to a strategy that sounds simple: Get homeless people a place to live as quickly as possible. Reporter Aaron Schrank went to see how the approach is working in Los Angeles.

AARON SCHRANK, BYLINE: Robert Harper and Charles Miller are making their daily rounds on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

ROBERT HARPER: Hey, give me a call later. Still got my number? Call me tonight.

SCHRANK: They're with Americorps. And under a new pilot program, they seek out the most vulnerable people living on the streets of downtown LA, and work with other agencies to find them a permanent place to live. Harper says they do it fast.

HARPER: A person is out here about to die, and you tell them sign a wait-list and wait for a year? Come on now. So we're known as the 90-day people.


HARPER: Let me write down this mileage real quick.

SCHRANK: Today, they're visiting Billy Ray West, who's agreed to meet them at a nearby fast food joint. West has lived on the streets for more than 30 years. If they can help him track down his birth certificate, he'll be under a roof in the next few months - no strings attached. But he's nowhere to be found inside the restaurant.

HARPER: Hey, you know Billy?

CHARLES MILLER: The guy, the homeless guy?

SCHRANK: And the attendants who guard his stuff at the parking lot where he sleeps haven't seen him, either. Miller says this is part of the job.

MILLER: See, that's some of the things that we deal with.

HARPER: Did you recognize him with his haircut and everything?

MILLER: He wasn't in there.

SCHRANK: And then they spot him across the street.

HARPER: There goes Billy right there. Isn't that Billy on the corner?

MILLER: Billy, on the corner.

HARPER: With that blue shirt on.

MILLER: Blue shirt on.

HARPER: Yeah. Hey, Billy!

SCHRANK: West is 53 and an alcoholic. He's what these agencies would call chronically homeless. They make up a quarter of LA County's homeless population, but use three-quarters of its homeless resources. Before meeting these two guys, West hadn't gotten much help on Skid Row, but he says that's on him.

BILLY WEST: You know, I've just really been too damn lazy, just sitting, sitting, sitting around doing nothing. You know, just drinking all day. That's basically, that's basically, basically - basically, my fault 'cause I wasn't doing nothing to help myself.

SCHRANK: People like West have been the priority since United Way LA launched Home For Good, a campaign to end chronic homelessness by 2016. Now, United Way is coordinating agencies on Skid Row to reach this goal. Recent research shows that the Housing First model saves money by keeping people out of emergency rooms, jails and shelters.

Hazel Lopez is part of this interagency team. She says before this system, case managers often weren't sure that they were helping the neediest people.

HAZEL LOPEZ: And I think that now, when we provide someone with a unit, it's safe to say that that person really is the most vulnerable in our community.

SCHRANK: When case managers meet someone on the streets, they use a standard survey to collect information - medical history, substance abuse issues, income, usual whereabouts. Each client is assigned a vulnerability score, and all of that information is loaded into a database that all agencies can access and update. Lopez says instead of competing for resources, they are - quite literally - on the same page.

LOPEZ: We're all working with the same pool of clients, and we're all working towards this one goal, you know, as a team.

ANDY BALES: It takes all strategies to end homelessness, not just one, simple silver bullet.

SCHRANK: That's Andy Bales, CEO of Skid Row's Union Rescue Mission. He says that as resources have shifted to the chronically homeless, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness have been left out in the cold.

BALES: And the truth's in the numbers. Homelessness in LA has increased 16 percent since Home For Good was launched.

SCHRANK: Even the number of chronically homeless individuals went up in the past two years. Home For Good plans to expand its Skid Row operation, to help all of LA County's 12,000 chronically homeless. But with only about 1,000 permanent housing units to go around each year, that's going to take some work.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Schrank.

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