One of the most pressing and complex challenges facing our city is the issue of homelessness. It affects neighborhoods throughout the city. There is not one quick-fix or one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.
The 2019 point-in-time count in Long Beach found that there were 1,894 persons experiencing homelessness in the city. This is an unacceptable level. However, when compared with homeless counts in other comparable-sized cities throughout the state, Long Beach is showing that our pro-active approach is achieving better results in addressing this crisis impacting the entire state.
Long Beach has initiated several innovative programs in the past few years, including the Police Department’s Quality of Life officers, who are dedicated to addressing public safety issues related to homelessness, our Fire Department’s HEART team, and a multi-jurisdictional task force to help coordinate response efforts with other agencies such as Union Pacific Railroad and Los Angeles County.
The emergency winter shelter is operating until the end of March. This summer, the city’s new year-round emergency shelter will open, offering 125 beds and support services. An infusion of 358 units of permanent housing for at-risk and households experiencing homelessness in Long Beach opened in 2019 or will be opening this year.
The city is currently launching a Homeless Employment Pilot Program to provide steady, subsidized employment that provides participants with base earnings, and equips them with skills needed to secure competitive employment.
The city is also working to provide more affordable housing opportunities. An inclusionary housing policy will be coming to the City Council this spring to require an affordable housing component to new residential developments. We have also adopted policies to encourage more affordable housing units, such as accessory dwelling units and a soon-to-be-considered pilot program for micro-units.
I propose these additional steps to be implemented in the coming months to help move the city forward in addressing the issue of homelessness:
• Establish a central coordinator to oversee the city’s homeless service and prevention efforts in the City Manager’s office, a “homelessness czar” if you will. There are many departments in the city, as well as other agencies and community partners involved in addressing the many facets of the homelessness problem. The coordination of these efforts must have the priority and urgency that is required. The City Manager is currently implementing this recommendation on an interim basis.
• Increase the citywide capacity of temporary and transitional housing available to 500 beds. There are persons experiencing homelessness in all parts of the city. Services should be available to them throughout the city, as well. I supported the Eighth District to house the emergency winter shelter in 2018 and 2019.
• Prioritize affordable housing projects in Long Beach’s Opportunity Zones. There are 19 Opportunity Zones in Long Beach, which were established by federal legislation in 2017 and identified by the state, in which developers can receive significant tax breaks for investing in these low-income areas. Building new affordable housing should be the priority for these areas.
• Train and empower HOPE Teams of volunteers to help with outreach to connect persons experiencing homelessness with available services. Many experts say that it takes as many as 17 contacts before a person experiencing homelessness is willing to accept services. Multiply that by the number of homeless in Long Beach, and you can see that it is a daunting task for just the small group of capable city staff doing outreach. Many people throughout the city — our faith communities, residents, business owners — want to help with our homelessness crisis, but may not know the best ways to do so. We can train these teams of volunteers to be a force multiplier in this effort.
• Work to maximize and leverage the resources available from the federal, state and county levels. As this is a crisis greater than just Long Beach, we must be sure to utilize all available dollars before asking residents to pay more taxes. Last month, the Governor proposed $1.4 billion in new funding specifically to address homelessness. The city also receives funding from Measure H, the county’s sales tax measure to address homelessness.
Long Beach is a leader in innovative, pro-active approaches to address our homelessness crisis. But we cannot be satisfied until we fully eliminate this crisis. I will continue to press our city to give this issue the urgency and priority that is necessary. And to do so will take everyone being in on the solution.
Al Austin II has represented the Eighth District on the City Council since 2012.