Why would 22 successful business leaders spend more than a year evaluating homelessness in greater Los Angeles?

Because when it comes to homelessness, it is long past time to take care of business.

The Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness was created in 2009 by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Composed of executives from fields as diverse as real estate, logistics, communications, security, law and finance, the group has done what executives facing a challenge always do – develop an accurate status report, evaluate resources, conduct a cost analysis and chart an action plan.

The task force walked Skid Row and met with successful supportive housing developers and the once-homeless residents the developers’ housing supports. We learned that New York had an effective approach to locating and housing chronic homeless folks, so we invited the organization that built that program to enlighten us.

We recognized that funding for homeless programs flows in great measure through Washington, D.C., so we dispatched a delegation to meet with federal officials and visit with the L.A. congressional caucus. We learned that Denver has a successful campaign to end chronic homelessness and went there to examine what they did and how, meeting with political experts, housing providers, police and executives who created a jobs program for formerly homeless individuals.

The task force audited finances and what we found staggered us: In greater Los Angeles, we spend at least $875 million on homelessness every year. Our chronically homeless constitute only 25 percent of our homeless population yet, for good reasons, they consume up to 74 percent of the total we spend. Chronically homeless individuals rely on ultra-expensive emergency room health care, consume significant mental health resources because they are often mentally disabled or addicted or both, and rely heavily on our hodgepodge network of case management, nongovernment agencies and non-profits.

Our cost-benefit analysis is as stunning as the raw numbers. Our annual investment is enormous, the return on it negligible. Our region remains the homeless capital of the nation, and our population of chronic and veteran homeless remains essentially constant. We manage our homeless population, but we do not appreciably reduce it. We generate precious little return on investment.

Once we had reliable data on the current state of affairs, the task force took the next step. We evaluated best practices, worked the data, explored the options, calculated the costs and amortized them over a carefully planned realistic calendar. Once we had a solid framework, we shared our plan to those who will work with it – government leaders and the agencies they supervise, social service agencies, business leaders, law enforcement – to incorporate their input.

Home for good

We came to a conclusion as solid as it is remarkable: We can end chronic and veteran homelessness in greater Los Angeles in five years and spend less than we do now. We project a net cost avoidance of at least 40 percent over five years when our recommendations are implemented. (The task force’s report, Home for Good, is available at homeforgoodla.org.)

This will not be easy. We don’t gather data about homeless individuals well and we don’t use what we gather effectively. We need to focus our resources on specific outcomes and we need to measure progress frequently and rigorously. We must rely on permanent supportive housing to a far greater extent than we do now. We must create an efficient housing system for chronic and veteran homeless (at least 50 percent of the housing stock we need already exists, we just don’t use it wisely).

The task force will not be content to submit our work and see it shelved. Instead, we’re going to stay on the job until the job is done. Our plan will benefit the community in which we live and work, so we won’t go away – we will take care of business.

Why are 22 successful business leaders willing to tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem? Because the diminution of our community and its inhabitants must end, because this problem is not insurmountable and, in fact, will be solved, because taking care of our neighbors is our social responsibility. Because we hope you will see it as yours.

Renee White Fraser, Ph.D., is the chief executive of Fraser Communications in Los Angeles. Jerry Neuman is a partner in the law firm Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles. They co-chair the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness.

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