Lessons From LA on Homelessness Spending

Postcard from the Future

Los Angeles is halfway through a multi-billion dollar plan to support people experiencing homelessness, but residents don’t think it’s working. What can Portland learn from LA’s experience?

In May 2020, voters in the Portland region approved a new set of personal and business income taxes to help pay for supportive housing services (SHS) in the region. The 10-year fund is intended to help end homelessness across the region through a range of new and expanded services and programs, such as housing placement services, emergency outreach and shelter, rent assistance, and mental health services. Metro works with the City of Portland to collect the new taxes on behalf of Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties.

Overhead image of Marquam Bridge in Portland, OregonThe designers of this landmark investment in supportive housing services modeled the initiative on Los Angeles County’s Measure H, which passed in March 2017 and reached its halfway point in 2022. While total spending from LA’s Measure H has topped $1.8 billion, 79 percent of county voters say the homelessness crisis has deepened in the last couple of years.

At the request of the Portland-based organization Homeless Strategic Initiatives (HSI), ECONorthwest’s John Tapogna and Melissa Rowe reviewed Los Angeles County’s initiative and developed a report titled Postcard from the Future: What Can Portland Learn from the Implementation of Los Angeles’s Measure H? The authors acknowledge it is far too soon to declare Measure H a policy success or failure—a full assessment will require the perspectives of public health experts, social scientists, people with lived experience, service providers, and others—but state that “Portland, now navigating the tradeoffs between different uses of its own service resources, would be well-served to understand Los Angeles’s emerging lessons in hopes of charting a better path forward.”

Moving Forward

The report includes six recommendations for Portland as the region determines how to spend the new $225 million per year:

  • Remember that accelerated housing production is the long-term solution to the region’s homelessness crisis.
  • Get clear, and realistic, about the relationship between housing placement activity and changes in the point-in-time (PIT) counts of people experiencing homelessness.
  • Establish a goal and timetable for reductions in street and shelter homelessness.
  • Systematically manage the region’s campsites and set public expectations that street homelessness will persist at gradually lower levels.
  • Fully leverage a new relationship with the Built for Zero movement.
  • Learn from LA’s self-described systemic dysfunction and identify a central entity that is accountable for SHS outcomes.

“ECO’s report received press coverage from various media outlets and is supporting conversations about homelessness and SHS spending throughout the region. The report concludes that “perceived success will require implementation prowess that so far appears to have eluded Los Angeles. Get implementation right, and the region will put thousands of lives on better paths and restore the community’s belief that government can address its most urgent problems.”

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Lessons From LA on Homelessness Spending