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Homeless families turned away for lack of space in South LA shelters

Tandra Dixon's children play during winter break in their South Los Angeles home on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 21, 2016. In November, Dixon and her five children moved into this two-bedroom apartment.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
In this file photo, a family that was homeless for years gets an apartment in South Los Angeles. Others are not so lucky. Homeless families are having trouble getting into overflowing shelters in the area, prompting local leaders to look for solutions.

Homeless families can't get into overflowing shelters in South Los Angeles and that's spurring local officials to look into some unconventional options for getting families off the streets.

Since November, when the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) started keeping track, 170 families have been turned away when seeking crisis housing in L.A. County for lack of space. 

County officials have taken some steps to alleviate the problem. They put an extra $90,000 into motel vouchers available to families through the 211 help line. They're adding a handful more shelter spots through nonprofits in South and Southeast L.A. And the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a measure, authored by Supervisor Janice Hahn, that freed up some funds held for permanent housing for families to be used for crisis housing as well. 

Those strategies have been effective in most of the county, said Josh Hall, LAHSA's family system integration manager. But not in South L.A. 

"The demand is really high in South L.A.," said Josh Hall, LAHSA's family system integration manager. "We have more folks seeking crisis housing than we have crisis housing beds for."

At the moment, there are 76 families on the waitlist for emergency housing in South L.A. 

"I can't encourage you enough to handle this problem with urgency," Molly Rysman, housing and homelessness deputy for Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, told LAHSA officials at a county meeting last week. "There has to be a way to solve this."

Part of the issue is the amount of time families are spending in crisis housing has more than doubled. In the past, caseworkers could find a permanent home for most families within 45 days. Now it's taking 99 days.

"As the rental market has tightened, it's become much harder to get homeless families into housing," Hall said. "Rents keep rising."

One option LAHSA's exploring is whether Airbnb rentals might be a good fit for families in the long or short term. They're scheduled to meet with officials from the company later this week.

In July, the county will also start collecting revenue from Measure H, a quarter-cent tax hike approved by voters in March, which is expected to raise $355 million annually for homeless services.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on how to spend initial funds from that tax in June. One of the key challenges will be deciding how much to allocate to emergency services that get people off the streets immediately, versus investing in long-term solutions to homelessness, like permanent housing. 

Service providers met with agency heads last week to start hammering out a spending plan.

The process is expected to take months, but the tension between the immediate humanitarian crisis on the streets and the county's goal of getting people into permanent housing, not just shelters, was already present.

Long-term housing solutions take time to construct and staff up. In the meantime, Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, asked "how many people are we willing to leave on the streets."

The Measure H revenue planning group is scheduled to meet again April 6 to start debating initial funding amounts.