Board Looks to Expand Groundbreaking Program that Breaks the Cycle of Incarceration and Homelessness

The Board of Supervisors directed Los Angeles County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR) to draft a plan for expanding its innovative program that breaks the cycle of incarceration and homelessness. Dubbed ODR Housing, the program diverts inmates with serious mental health issues and substance abuse disorders from jail and provides them with intensive case management and supportive housing.

ODR has diverted more than 3,000 people from jail, of whom 1,700 have benefited from ODR Housing. Having an affordable apartment, as well as medical and mental healthcare, has helped many of them avoid cycling between living on the streets and being locked up behind bars.

The program has been successful in keeping 90 percent of its participants in stable housing for at least six months. At a cost of $70 a day per participant, ODR Housing is significantly less expensive than a stint in County jail or a stay in a County hospital.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas who authored the motion to create ODR. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

“Expanding ODR Housing will help us treat mental health and substance abuse disorders, tackle homelessness, and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently – all without compromising public safety,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who authored the motion to create ODR. “We simply must double down on diversion because one cannot get well in a cell.”

“Our decision today to identify resources to expand this very successful program represents a true inflection point, not only for the Office of Diversion and Reentry, but for the County’s whole approach to justice,” added Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “We now have abundant evidence that people with serious mental health needs can be appropriately and safely served in the community, instead of in jail. Today’s action is an expression of the Board’s seriousness in finding the resources to expand this very important work.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl at the Board meeting. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

Initially, ODR Housing was available only to people whose cases were heard in the Superior Court’s downtown Los Angeles Central District. Starting last month, two additional courthouses began offering the program. This represented a geographical expansion but – without additional resources – did not correspond with an increase in the number of clients who could be served.

Today’s motion calls for a plan to expand ODR Housing to all of the 12 geographic districts within the Superior Court system. The plan will include a timeline for increasing the number of clients who can be served, and identify financial and other resources needed to sustain the expansion, which will be aligned with the work of the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group as well as the 5 to10-year Diversion and Reentry Road Map for People with Serious Clinical Needs.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas stands with Director of the LA County Office of Diversion and Reentry Judge Peter Espinoza and others on the steps of Men’s Central Jail. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors

“We are very excited to be working with the Board of Supervisors and our justice partners to expand the important work of diverting people from the jails into community based care,” said Judge Peter Espinoza (ret.), executive director of ODR. “Our programs continue to demonstrate that housing stability and intensive care can reduce the endless cycle of homelessness, recidivism and incarceration for our most vulnerable citizens.”

An estimated one-third of the men and women in the County jail system – approximately 5,300 people – suffer from mental illness. A recent report from the Department of Health Services shows 56 percent of them – nearly 2,900 people – may be eligible to benefit from ODR Housing if the program is scaled up.

Ezequiel Perez was skeptical when he was first offered the program, which has since changed his life. “I was like, ‘Is this for real? You’re gonna get me housing and medical and all that?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, and you can get started all over again.’ It was jaw dropping.”

Leonard Brown, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had been homeless, said, “It’s a hard thing to say but jail had been like a second home. Getting released and not having an opportunity to participate in treatment – the cycle kept continuing.” Since he became a participant of ODR Housing, he said, “I have been able to grow and get my life back.”