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Outgoing Head Of Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Weighs In On City's Crisis


Los Angeles has tens of thousands of people living on its streets. The problem there is so acute, county voters approved a higher local sales tax in 2017 to fund an increase in homeless services. That money flows to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA. It's the agency that coordinates efforts between the city and the county to provide shelters and other services in the area. And the agency's leader, Peter Lynn, recently announced that he is stepping down after five years on the job, during which LA has seen a dramatic growth in homelessness.

Peter Lynn joins me now from LA. Welcome.

PETER LYNN: Thank you.

CHANG: Let's look back on this five years a little bit. I mean, your agency, LAHSA, it's gotten new large infusions of cash. It's grown tremendously under your tenure. What has all that growth allowed LAHSA to do?

LYNN: So we've been able to expand from a fairly small-scale effort to very large-scale programs to house people. So we have greatly expanded the outreach force within the county, and we've greatly expanded our permanent supportive housing for the most vulnerable Angelenos who are homeless.

CHANG: The number of homeless people in LA has gone up - what? - about 33% since you started this job. Why is that? Why have we seen such a sharp increase in homelessness even just in the past five years?

LYNN: There are a number of different factors that contribute to people's vulnerability and economic instability, but the core driver in Los Angeles is affordability. We have one of the least affordable housing markets in America. I think this is a challenge facing all of coastal California. We have underbuilt for decades, and our housing stock production has not kept pace with the number of new households in California for decades. And that puts tremendous pressure on the housing market. The gap between steep increases in the rental market based on not enough supply...

CHANG: Right.

LYNN: ...And the poorest Angelenos just not being able to keep up has meant many, many more people getting pushed out of the rental market into homelessness.

CHANG: Do you see the homelessness problem in California worsening before it can get better? I mean, will it even get better?

LYNN: I think that California is recognizing a number of the different drivers. I think we have been able to successfully reframe the narrative from personal characteristics of people who are homeless to the systemic issues like housing affordability, like the failure to reintegrate people into our communities after decades of mass incarceration, like the challenges of deep systemic racism in America, our lack of access to mental health, our lack of access to substance use treatment. All of these are contributing to people's fundamental vulnerability.

We also in California, I think, just like many American communities, tore down many deeply affordable housing stock types like the single-room occupancy hotel that used to keep many people in a room with shared bathroom facilities and so forth. That kind of housing stock was largely torn down and not replaced. And coming up with innovative ways to think about deep affordability that would be available for people who are deeply impoverished in this market are - we need innovation in our housing market, but we also really do need to look at the systemic issues that create vulnerabilities for people economically.

CHANG: Well, I wish you the best of luck.

LYNN: Thank you.

CHANG: Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority - well, at least for a little while longer. Thank you very much for joining us today.

LYNN: Thank you for having me and for lifting up the need to address homelessness. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.