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The Time for Action On
The Homeless Crisis is Now

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Los Angeles County has reached a critical moment when political will, public support and resources are all within reach to finally put an end to the spiraling epidemic of mass homelessness.

Just a couple months after the Board of Supervisors approved a historic and comprehensive plan to address the crisis, a new L.A.County sponsored poll shows that voters would overwhelmingly approve a ballot initiative this fall to combat homelessness – even if it means taking money out of their own pockets to pay for it.

According to the survey, 68 percent of likely voters would support a sales tax increase to fund programs for the homeless. An even larger number, 76 percent, would back a tax increase on incomes exceeding $1 million.

Homelessness is the defining civic issue in the County of Los Angeles, and we need to confront it.  We are facing a moral crisis.  And a moral crisis demands a moral solution.

In 2015, Los Angeles County alone accounted for 8 percent of the homeless population throughout the United States – 44,359 on any given night. Many live far beyond the boundaries of Skid Row, sleeping on sidewalks and park benches, under bridges, in cars and abandoned buildings.

With the upcoming release of the 2016 Homeless Count, the situation will seem even bleaker. It is expected to confirm what most residents are already seeing with their own eyes in their own neighborhoods: that more people than ever are living on the streets, often in tents.

The good news is that we know what works and right now, we are seeing positive results from those efforts. One of the County’s programs, Housing for Health, has already taken 1,400 people off the streets and placed them into permanent supportive housing. Another 2,500 will join them by the summer of 2017. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) – a joint County and City agency – has housed 1,500 families in just over the last year and a half.

The Homeless Initiative plan approved by the Board in February should have an even greater impact. Its sweeping strategies are intended, not only to house the homeless, but to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. It also includes increasing affordable and subsidized housing, providing supportive services and raising incomes. The plan calls for unprecedented collaboration among County and City agencies, as well as businesses, faith-based institutions and community organizations.

The City of Los Angeles is an important ally and partner in the fight to tackle homelessness.  However, if the Homeless Initiative is to be successful, it will require the full support of all 88 cities in the County– nothing less.

Academia can also play a pivotal role in searching for ways to best address homelessness.  The University of Southern California just launched an initiative to corral the experience and knowledge on its campus and within the community to provide tangible solutions within four years.

It is clear that focused and careful spending of taxpayer dollars to combat homelessness does work when coupled with clear requirements on outcomes and accountability.

The problem is scale. LAHSA estimates the cost of meeting the needs of the homeless is about $450 million each year, not counting construction. The Board has set aside $100 million – a good start, but not nearly enough.

The crisis already exacts a steep price on taxpayers, in terms of law enforcement and social services.  Providing housing for the homeless enables taxpayer dollars to be spent more effectively.

In the past, voters have stepped up to approve ballot measures to pay for community essentials. Recent polling by the County indicates that voters now rank homelessness as their second-highest concern behind jobs and the economy. A survey by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that 6 in 10 County residents consider the lack of affordable housing for low-income families a very serious problem, and that many County residents are worried about going hungry or becoming homeless themselves.

Now is the time to commit resources that match the magnitude of the problem, and make a bold, concerted effort to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.

 

 

 

Homelessness Summit

IMG_0073Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas laid out his “Vision for Action” at a summit on homelessness conducted by the University of Southern California.

“I will repeat what I have said before: Homelessness is the defining civic issue in the County of Los Angeles, and we need to confront it,” he said during a panel discussion. “We are facing a moral crisis, and a moral crisis demands a moral solution.”

“Instead of averting our eyes, we must see it and know it, and then we must move to address it and overcome it,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “We are doing many things right, but we are not doing enough of it. The fact of the matter is we have to radically scale up all our approaches.”

In February, the Board of Supervisors approved 47 strategies to address homelessness and set aside $100 million to implement it. Supervisor Ridley-Thomas called the amount a good start, but not enough.

The County recently conducted a poll to determine whether voters would support a November ballot initiative to raise additional funds. Its results, released over the weekend, showed 76 percent of voters would approve an income tax on people making over a million dollars, while 68 percent would back a sales tax.

“What the poll results show is that voters are willing to work in coordination with the County to improve their neighborhoods and help their neighbors,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Voters understand that stronger communities and improved lives in the future depend on investments today.”

“We at the Board of Supervisors are working diligently to scale up the County’s response but we could not do it without you,” he told the crowd at the summit. “It will take all of us – public and private sectors, and the community – equally yoked together and working together to create a Los Angeles where homelessness is rare and brief.”

USC launched the summit on homelessness to engage policymakers, public and private sector leaders, and its own faculty and staff in coming up with ideas to address what Provost Michael Quick calls a “wicked problem.” The summit will provide the basis for more intensive discussion at the Provost’s annual retreat in June 2016, and establish a framework for goals to be achieved by the USC Homeless Initiative over the next two to three years.

A series of panels tackled the current scope of the crisis and initiatives underway to address it; the dire need for supportive services and affordable housing; business and technology solutions; and the role that universities can play in the solution. Panelists included Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price, USC President Max Nikias, and United Way of Greater of Los Angeles President and CEO Elise Buik.

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Citizen Scientists

20160414_0788_UNRClaunch_MDThe Natural History Museum (NHM) is turning all of urban Los Angeles into a field site for wildlife research – with residents pitching in as “citizen scientists.”

From its newly-launched Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC), the museum is conducting the largest urban biodiversity study in the world, dubbed SuperProject. The objective is to extend scientific research and investigation beyond its Exposition Park location and, with the help of local residents, inventory the myriad species of animals and insects that live throughout Los Angeles.

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Supervisor Ridley-Thomas as citizen scientist, examining specimens in their urban habitat at NHM

Mark Ridley-Thomas lauded the museum’s efforts to engage the community in its groundbreaking research. “This urban biodiversity research is a new frontier for all of us, and I look forward to children, teachers, and librarians across Los Angeles County joining the museum’s army of citizen scientists,” he said.

Hundreds of citizen scientists have been trained to collect data and submit it to the museum’s scientists via iNaturalist, a free app for reporting personal observations of any plant or animal species. Already, UNRC’s SuperProject has led to many exciting discoveries about the regional environment.

“There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world,” NHM Curator of Entomology and UNRC Co-Director Dr. Brian Brown said. “At NHM, we’re committed to learning more about the extraordinary plants and animals around us, and to making L.A. a better place for wildlife — and, by extension, humans —to thrive.”

The biggest challenge to studying urban biodiversity is that a significant portion of the habitat exists in backyards and other areas inaccessible to scientists for research. “We are excited to partner with volunteers across the region to establish citizen science as one of today’s foremost scientific research methods,” said Dr. Greg Pauly, Associate Curator of Herpetology at NHM and UNRC Co-Director.

2MZ_4348At the launch of UNRC, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas presented NHM President and Director Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga with a scroll declaring April 16 as Citizen Science Day, and she talked about envisioning the museum as “a hub for the investigation of urban nature, shaped not only by scientists and experts, but by user, visitor and educator interests.”

“It’s a new approach to science: using the expansive and diverse Los Angeles landscape as a field site to look at things in a less compartmentalized way, and conducting research in the urban matrix — with the help of the public,” Dr. Bettison-Varga said.

With human populations worldwide increasingly concentrated in cities, urban biodiversity is quickly becoming a central part of the future of plants and wildlife on Earth. However, much of it remains a mystery. NHM Research and Collections Vice President Dr. Luis Chiappe hopes that by analyzing historical data and gathering new data through the SuperProject, NHM can become “a major think tank for urban issues relating to climate change, pollution, urban habitats, and ecological resource management.”

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Providing the Best Legal Defense for Our Youth

HuffPo - MRT & SK clearA free and fair society, such as ours, has an obligation to protect its youth — even those accused of committing crimes.

The right to competent legal counsel, regardless of ability to pay, is enshrined in our Constitution. Nevertheless, it remains elusive for many indigent youth in Los Angeles County, where the juvenile legal defense system has not seen meaningful reform in two decades.

A new study by the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley raised disturbing findings about the current structure designed to provide legal representation for children and young adults who cannot afford to hire counsel. The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office typically represents those individuals; however, in situations where the Public Defender (or in certain circumstances the Alternate Public Defender) is already representing a client in the same case, a private lawyer is appointed at County expense. They are commonly referred to as panel attorneys and paid a flat fee, ranging from $340 to $360 per case — nothing more.

The amount is fixed, regardless of the seriousness and complexity of a case or the number of hours spent working on it. If these panel attorneys need to hire investigators, they must pay for them themselves, unlike counsel in the Public Defender’s Office, where the County provides funds for investigators. The same goes for training.

How can panel attorneys be expected to mount a vigorous defense with such limited resources? It is like sending them, and their young clients, into a fistfight with one arm tied behind their back.

While the amount of money or time spent on a defense doesn’t always equate to better representation, it often matters. On average, the Public Defender’s Office expends $2,912 per case, while panel counsel spend $751 per case — less than a third.

Most of these indigent youth are children of color. Inadequate juvenile indigent defense has been one more way that youth, typically youth of color, have been funneled into the justice system. For example, the Warren Institute noted that a number of panel attorney clients were more likely to end up in juvenile camps, prison or transferred to the adult court system than clients represented by the Public Defender’s Office. That impacts lifelong prospects for employment, being able to vote and gaining access to federal funds for education.

The problem with inadequate defense is more structural than personal. The Warren Institute did not attribute these outcomes to a lack of caring on the part of panel attorneys who, they noted, are “hardworking and committed professionals.” Rather, the system is set up in a way that almost guarantees disparities.

When our youth do not receive effective representation and are denied the possibility of receiving a lesser punishment because their attorney lacks certain resources, the County and society pay a hefty price in economic, social welfare and public safety costs.

Frankly, reforms should have taken place in Los Angeles County years ago, as they have in many other jurisdictions.

The Warren Institute study revealed that Los Angeles County is the only one among 10 surveyed in California that still uses the flat-fee structure for compensating panel attorneys, but does not provide panel attorneys with County-paid investigators. Further, according to the study, Los Angeles County allows panel attorneys to bear heavy caseloads, and lacks oversight and quality controls. This is unacceptable.

We must act with a sense of urgency and make sweeping changes to level the playing field for juvenile defendants, many of whom are themselves victims — of childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, struggling schools and dysfunction at home. Sadly, a significant number also suffer from mental illness.

Given the unique needs of these youth, any new system must ensure that legal counsel serves their young clients holistically. Beyond defending them from allegations, they must also act as advocates, who make sure that these youth receive services ordered by the court, such as educational support, medical and psychological treatment, assistance with sealing or expunging their records, and appealing cases. That is the new standard for high quality juvenile defense, and Los Angeles County must embrace it.

When Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system was created over a century ago, the goal was not merely to punish, but to rehabilitate. Somehow, we lost our way.

It is high time that we come to grips with the fact that the nation’s largest juvenile justice system has provided a youth legal defense that is inadequate, unacceptable and arguably unconstitutional. Members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are uniting to address this, taking steps to examine the noted disparities with an eye on producing reform that is long overdue. Our children and their families deserve nothing less.

Growing Urban Gardens

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To increase the supply of fruits and vegetables in “food desert” communities, the Board of Supervisors adopted an ordinance creating a tax incentive for urban farming.

6939148938_b745c45ea6_zUnder the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Ordinance, property owners in Los Angeles County’s unincorporated areas can get a discount on their property taxes – if they set aside a portion of their land for agricultural purposes, increasing the supply of fresh produce in their community.

“It will be a carrot – literally and figuratively – to incentivize new sources of produce within food deserts, eliminate urban blight, and promote community engagement,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion to adopt the ordinance, implementing AB 155 or the California Urban Agriculture Incentives Zone Act.

6939149476_7b297555c1_z (1)He said the ordinance should be of particular benefit to those living in food deserts, which are communities that do not have any nearby supermarkets or grocery stores selling fresh produce. Food deserts tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes.

The Assessor has estimated almost 57,000 parcels throughout Los Angeles County, including almost 8,000 in unincorporated areas, would be eligible for the program. Those living in incorporated areas can participate in the program after their respective city adopts a resolution.