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Paradigm Shift for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Justice System

As part of a significant shift to a “care-first” approach to juvenile justice, and to reduce excessive force in Los Angeles County’s probation camps and juvenile halls, the Board of Supervisors called for a plan to divert youth with mental health needs away from locked facilities, and to increase mental health services for youth who remain incarcerated. The motion was in response to growing concerns about inadequate treatment, documented in reports by the County’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Department of Mental Health (DMH).

“Failure to provide mental health services to justice-involved youth in our care is not a new problem. The US Department of Justice documented these issues back in 2003 and yet, over 15 years later, the County continues to struggle. This is unacceptable,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion, said. “The current approach of juvenile incarceration is currently re-traumatizing youth and making the facilities less safe. These sobering findings lead to the unavoidable conclusion that a fundamental paradigm shift to a ‘care first’ model is required to achieve rehabilitation and public safety. We cannot allow the status quo to continue.”

“Our probation halls and camps are not meeting the mental health needs of our youth and we need a new approach,” added Supervisor Janice Hahn, co-author of the motion. “Whenever possible, we will divert kids with mental illness out of custody and into community-based treatment. At the same time, we will invest in dramatically improving the mental health services available for the youth who remain in our care.”

In its February 2019 report on safety concerns in juvenile justice facilities, the Inspector General found incidents of youth on psychotropic medication being pepper sprayed, as well as other alarming violations of protocol. In response, the Board asked DMH to assess the mental health needs of youth in County juvenile facilities.

Among the report’s most significant findings is that more than 90 percent of youth in the juvenile halls in 2018 had an open mental health case, representing a 38 percent increase since 2015. These youth are also more likely to have experienced homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation, which aggravate their underlying mental health issues. To address rather than exacerbate this trauma, DMH called for shifting to a “care first” model, including diversion, alternative placements, and increased mental health staff for those that remain in custody. Today’s motion by Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Hahn seeks to find ways to implement these and other DMH recommendations.

“We believe in care for kids whose lives have been turned upside down by trauma and are in need of treatment, not punishment. Unfortunately, our current systems are not only incompatible with care delivery but also reinforce unhealthy narratives,” DMH Director Jonathan Sherin said. “We need reform and are going for it ‘all in’ as a County with steadfast leadership from the Board of Supervisors and guidance from the community.”

Peter Espinoza, director of the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, said his office “understands the importance of providing community-based alternatives for young people who suffer from a mental disorder, and is poised to build on the County’s existing youth diversion model to do so. Diverting young people away from incarceration improves not only health and education outcomes but also decreases their likelihood of reoffending.”

Supervisors Approve Ordinance Against Housing Discrimination

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas with tenants at 127th Street Apartments and El Segundo Boulevard Apartments. Photo by Martin Zamora / Board of Supervisors

The Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance that would ban landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who receive government-issued rental assistance, such as Section 8 vouchers.

Though the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, implementation of its guarantees has fallen short. A 2018 Housing and Urban Development survey found that prospective tenants with Section 8 vouchers have a 76 percent denial rate when applying for housing in Los Angeles.

“Addressing pervasive housing discrimination is a critical part of our comprehensive strategy to stabilize and create more opportunity in our housing marketplace,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-author of the motion that called for the ordinance. “The ordinance will not force landlords to rent to a voucher-holder, but simply prevent ruling them out as a tenant based solely on their source of income.”

“Implementation of the nation’s Fair Housing Act is 50 years overdue,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, lead author of the motion. “With today’s action, LA County is saying we will wait no longer. Discrimination in housing is exacerbating our housing and homelessness crisis by allowing landlords to discriminate and deny leases to families who want and can pay for housing.”

Los Angeles County Development Authority (LACDA) Executive Director Monique King-Viehland said in a letter to the Board, “In a County with less than a 3% vacancy rate and approximately 38,000 individuals/families on the County’s waiting list for Section 8 housing, this form of discrimination further limits the rental inventory for rental subsidy assisted families and is thereby effectively eliminating housing choice options.”

According to the California Housing Partnership Corporation, the County has a shortage of about 517,000 affordable housing units.

The Board approved the ordinance after adopting a motion by Supervisors Kuehl and Ridley-Thomas in January that called for “Creating Solutions to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing in Los Angeles County.” The motion directed County Counsel, in consultation with LACDA, to prepare an ordinance that would prevent landlord discrimination against housing applicants with government-provided rental assistance including, but not limited to, Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, other federally-funded rental assistance programs, the Flexible Housing Subsidy Pool and rapid re-housing rental assistance.

The ordinance complements $5 million committed by the Board to fund a database for tracking evictions, a displacement study, incentives for landlords to take Section 8 tenants, and educational programs on housing rights.

The ordinance had been recommended by the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness. It is also among the policies that Board is seeking at the State level, along with preventing price gouging and tenant evictions without just cause.

Statement by Supervisor Ridley-Thomas on the Alternatives to Incarceration Working Group Interim Report

“I am thankful to the Alternatives to Incarceration Working Group and its leaders for accomplishing so much in a very short amount of time. What they have done is extraordinary.”

Ribbon Cutting for the Exodus Mental Health Urgent Care Center at Harbor-UCLA. Photo by David Franco/Board of Supervisors

“They are putting together a roadmap that centers care and treatment as the primary priority, and incarceration as a tool of last resort. For the system, it represents a shift in paradigm to a care first ethos that internalizes the challenges faced by our justice-involved.”

“Additionally, while this interim report makes clear that the County must do much more to increase our alternatives to incarceration, the fact that the Working Group incorporated so much of the infrastructure that we’ve already built – such as the Office of Diversion and Reentry, psychiatric urgent care centers and sobering centers, as well as the state-of-the-art MLK Behavioral Health Center – signals we are heading in the right direction.”

“I look forward to seeing, and acting on, the “Final Roadmap.”  I am confident it will help us to avoid unnecessary incarceration as well as support individuals and families to stay housed and employed, further disrupting the vicious cycle between jails and homelessness.”


Cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of the Dr. David L. Murphy Sobering Center in Skid Row.   (Photos by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors)

Homeless crisis demands action on housing, mental health, evictions

Left to Right: Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and California Governor Gavin Newsom. (Michael Short/Board of Supervisors)

California boasts a powerhouse economy that would rank fifth in the world if we were a country. Our state boasts an immense concentration of wealth: A million millionaires live here.

But we also have the nation’s highest poverty rate. One in 5 Californians is struggling to get by.

Looking at our extreme income inequality, and some of the highest housing prices in the United States, it’s not hard to see why homelessness has become our state’s most significant catastrophe.

Every week, it seems there are more tents massed under freeway overpasses in California cities, more people huddled in downtown doorways, and more people living in their cars.

In 2018, California’s homeless population numbered about 130,000, a 13% increase from 2016. The latest count conducted in communities statewide in January has ominous results: a 22% increase in Riverside County, 23% in San Bernardino County, 43% in Orange County and 50% in Kern County. In Los Angeles County, the increase is 12%.

We estimate that about a third of the homeless population suffers from mental illness, and about one-fifth with substance use. To aid these individuals, many of whom have experienced homelessness for years, we are building a robust safety net. This is possible based on efforts like Los Angeles’ Measure H, which dedicates a portion of sales tax for homeless services, and No Place Like Home, a statewide initiative that’s expediting affordable housing development for mentally ill individuals.

But in a state which accounts for a quarter of our nation’s homeless, we can’t ignore that more than half are living outdoors. New York State has a large homeless population, about 92,000 people, but only 5% lack any form of shelter. Why the stark contrast?

New York invests in first getting people off the streets with a comprehensive shelter system. While California has been focused on building more permanent housing, we must pay equal and urgent attention to first getting people indoors as a key step to long-term stability.

We applaud the decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom to establish the Homeless & Supportive Housing Task Force and to include $1 billion in his proposed budget to address the issue. His proposal includes $650 million that would go directly to communities, including $275 million for the state’s most populous cities, to use for temporary shelters that surround residents with the services they need to stabilize and transition to permanent housing.

By quickly moving people through these shelters and into housing, we can start to make a real dent in the numbers of people sleeping outside.

But all of our hard work getting people into shelter will be futile if we see them replaced on our streets by those forced out of their homes by stark economics.

These are the Californians who park our cars, clean our buildings, prepare our coffee, and even teach our kids. Zillow research shows that a typical renter in Los Angeles is paying almost half their income toward housing costs. They are our neighbors, and they are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Far too often, they are one medical emergency, car repair, or rent increase away from falling into homelessness.

To address this, we must pursue scaled-up, sustainable approaches to prevent Californians from falling into homelessness in the first place.

We simply must produce more housing across California, and it must be housing of all types. California has a deficit of 1.5 million affordable rental homes.

We know that red tape stifles production, so we must look seriously at reforming state and local laws to make it easier to build the housing we desperately need. We should challenge our local entitlement departments to dramatically reduce the turn-around times for review and permitting.

We must also preserve affordable housing options for individuals and families before they are priced out. This means making sure that rents stay affordable, while promoting wealth-building within diverse communities of color that have been disenfranchised for far too long.

At the state level, this means allocating more tax credits to support the refinancing of projects to extend affordability covenants. At the local level, grant and loan programs should be set up for small property owners, helping them pay for essential home improvements, as long as they commit to keeping the rent affordable.

We must also protect residents from drastic rent increases and unlawful evictions through state legislation aimed at preventing rent gouging and evictions without just cause. Locally, we must support robust Right to Counsel programs to help defend renters from unjust evictions.

New York has seen great success: in the first year of establishing a Right to Counsel program, of the 22,000 New Yorkers represented by attorneys, 84% were able to remain in their homes. Small property owners should also be able to tap into this fund to help resolve renter conflicts.

Lastly, we need to partner to ensure that Californians are deeply moved by this humanitarian crisis to support diverse housing solutions in their neighborhoods. It is our moral imperative to produce more homes, preserve affordability of our housing stock, and protect our residents who are at risk of eviction.

There is no retreat, there is no room for complacency, and there can be no conscientious objectors in this battle to house all Californians. If we’re going to get everyone in, we have to be all in.

Darrell Steinberg is the mayor of Sacramento and the principal author of Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act of 2004. Mark Ridley-Thomas is supervisor for Los Angeles County’s Second District and the principal author of Measure H, Los Angeles County’s Homeless Services and Prevention Act of 2017.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.


Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas On the 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count

“It is the height of contradiction that in the midst of great prosperity across the Golden State, we are also seeing unprecedented increases in homelessness. It is simply not golden for everyone.

“We are building a robust safety net in LA County, but we have to work upstream to address the economic inequities and lack of affordable housing that are becoming, far too often, the attributing factors to our fellow Angelenos falling into homelessness.

“There is no rest for the weary and there is no retreat. We must intensify our collective efforts, and keep our eye on the prize. The bottom line is that there is no room for complacency.

“Thanks to Measure H, LA County has a more robust safety net to catch those needing assistance, and we are helping more people than ever before. For example, outreach workers connected with 34,000 people last year, shelters helped bring 24,000 off the streets, and 22,000 people accessed housing and stayed housed. The situation would be so much more dire without Measure H.

“This crisis is dynamic and we need cooperation from all levels of government and residents in this immense battle. We need to be All IN to get Everyone In.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas with street outreach workers who are on the frontlines in the fight against homelessness. Photo by Bryan Chan / Board of Supervisors