LA officials are housing more homeless people than ever before, but how? Relly Brown’s ground-floor apartment near MacArthur Park still resembles the hotel room it once was: four walls, no kitchen and a mattress that takes up half the floor. A shade is drawn over the only window, Belize Real Estate keeping it dim and reasonably cool on a warm spring afternoon. “I’m living in a box,” said Brown, 26, who was placed here in December through a program called rapid re-housing, which provides short-term rental vouchers to use on the private market. Typically, the subsidies cover security deposits and the first three to six months of rent. Rapid re-housing has become a go-to strategy for housing the homeless in LA County, accounting for one-fifth of the Measure H budget, or $73 million a year. Brown, who doesn’t identify as male or female and uses the pronoun “they,” was among 8,222 people housed through the program last year.
And despite the tiny living quarters, they’re grateful. Early last year they were sleeping on the streets of Hollywood. “I came from a dark place,” Brown said. “It’s grand to just finally have something that I could call mine. But here’s the catch: After an initial period with no out-of-pocket payments (exact lengths vary), rapid re-housing tenants gradually take on the rent themselves. Usually the assistance expires within a year, though it can be extended for up to two. Rapid re-housing was designed for people experiencing homelessness who have a good chance of paying for their own housing after a one-time boost. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which manages Measure H spending, is using the program to house a much wider segment of the homeless population. “It’s flexible,” said Heidi Marston, chief program officer for LAHSA. “It can be a short-term kind of intervention… But New York City ran a similarly broad rapid re-housing program between 2005 and 2011, and one researcher who studied the program says it was not effective.
“Rapid re-housing became, for the city, a nightmare,” said Ralph da Costa Nunez, president of the public policy think tank the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “Everybody thought we were going to have this great success. After being placed in a home, rapid re-housing voucher holders work up to paying their full housing costs. Relly Brown had to pay a portion of their rent for the first time in April, $300. But they could only come up with $200, so the nonprofit that placed them in the apartment, St. Joseph Center, covered the rest. St. Joseph Center is one of several organizations contracted with LAHSA to administer rapid re-housing. In May Brown’s payment will double to $600. In June it goes up to $900, then continues rising until it reaches the full monthly rate of $1,200. Brown is counting on a couple of part-time job interviews coming up, one for a company that does crowd control at events and the other at the Santa Monica Pier amusement park.
“Hopefully I’ll work both of them,” they said. If Brown succeeds in catching up to the rent they’ll beat the odds. Only one in five people with rapid re-housing in LA County increase their incomes at all before the subsidy runs out, according to LAHSA. For those who do increase their incomes, it’s usually by $200 a month or less. In a city where the average rent is more than $2,000 a month, going from homeless to paying market rate within a year or even two is a steep climb. LAHSA officials say they don’t expect everyone to make that ascent and sometimes use rapid re-housing as a stepping-stone to permanently subsidized housing. Some landlords, however, say tenants don’t always receive the help necessary to make that transition. David Bensoussan, 41, is a landlord who makes his living renting rooms to people at the bottom of LA’s housing market: ex-cons, newly sober addicts and the formerly homeless.
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