Q+A: How Los Angeles’ First Homeless Coordinator Approaches Her Job

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | December 19, 2016

Image flickr/Maureen Barlin.

Image flickr/Maureen Barlin.

Los Angeles leaders are hoping to make a significant dent in homelessness, thanks to a series of steps designed to address the issue head-on.

The city developed a comprehensive plan that emphasized a “housing first” that the city council then helped fund in a budget that included millions of dollars in short-term spending. Then, in November, voters approved $1.2 billion to build housing for the homeless.

Now it’s Meg Barclay’s job to help coordinate everything. Appointed as the city’s first homeless coordinator in September, Barclay has worked in the non-profit world, in local government and with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In her new role, she’ll leverage that experience to coordinate the county and city’s efforts, and to work with private partners to help address Los Angeles’ growing homelessness challenge. This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

According to the latest annual count, homelessness is up in L.A. And in particular, the percentage of unsheltered homeless individuals grew by almost 12 percent from 2015 to 2016. Los Angeles is struggling with affordability like many cities, but what have you seen contributing to the increase?

There has to be more housing supply in general and then wages — people need to be able to afford to pay rent. I think that’s obviously a huge source of the disparity. That gap between what people make and housing costs is resulting in large numbers of people in the city of Los Angeles, I think, who are homeless now and who are at-risk due of homelessness due to one lost paycheck, one big hospital bill. A number of things could financially devastate a family.

That’s why the city has put a lot more resources into rapid rehousing programs in recent years because they’re targeted towards families that have had some financial stressor. It gives them a little temporary assistance to get off the street and get to a place where they can pay rent as well.

So it’s a growing issue, but there have been some big moves to counter it. You just finished the first report on L.A.’s progress, so let’s start with the good news. What’s working?

The work to identify and get the process going to put affordable housing or city-owned sites at work for affordable housing is definitely on track and the first set of sites has been recommended. There’s some progress being made toward getting that started with specific developers, to start designing projects in collaboration with the communities where those are located. That process also identified a qualified list of developers that the city can now go to as these sites are identified in what we anticipate being an ongoing effort.

There are potential challenges: We need to get land use changes in place so those buildings can go up more quickly. There’s another ballot measure in March that could potentially really restrict our ability to do that, so we’re watching that really closely.

And now the challenges. It sounded like there were some unexpected roadblocks and setbacks. Where are some of the challenges occurring?

The issue of siting facilities we need in the short-run while we get ready to up the production of housing for the long-term — that’s been really difficult, more difficult than expected. It’s kind of one property at a time. Supporting it at the ballot box and supporting it in the neighborhood turns out to be two different things. We need to figure out ways to mitigate some of [residents’] concerns and be able to get what we need done as well. It’s a challenge.

Why do you think your position is necessary? Should all cities have someone like you on staff?

The county has a homeless coordinator as well. I think it’s necessary here because homelessness, like a lot of other issues, isn’t really the responsibility of one department. We have a homeless authority here, but it’s a city-county joint powers authority. The population interacts with a lot more than just that department: public safety, street services, planning, building services. All of these departments have lots of other jobs too. So it’s important to have somebody whose job it is so keep their eye on the ball and figure out what’s needed.

You’ve worked in the non-profit world as well and in city government. What’s one thing you wish each would know about working with the other?

I went from working for the city as an intern to working in the non-profit for about a year, and then I came back to the city. I think what served me really well was knowing the process for getting things through the city council.

With non-profits, they all have a very specific mission. So to me, it’s figuring out what those are and how they fit and not trying to make them something they’re not. With this work especially non-profits are service providers as well, you can’t do this work without them.

What are you looking forward to in the next year or so?

I think what I really want to see is the coordinated entry system become what it was designed to be: this clearinghouse and the way of making sure that the folks who are most vulnerable are at the front of the line for housing and working our way through that. Folks enter it through an assessment that basically evaluates their vulnerabilities; in theory it facilities in matching people with resources as they become available. So you’re not just building units and the developer is potentially taking the folks who are easier to serve.

I’m kind of a data nerd like that, though. I like the system stuff. That’s my priority in the first part of the year.

And what are your long-term goals? Cities often set housing targets or homelessness reduction targets, but how long can it take?

With a strategy like this I think they rightfully so said we need to get these things up and running before we make a ton of promises. We are working on metrics and how we’ll measure performance. That process is happening now and should be in our next quarterly performance report.

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