Kuehl: Proposed sales tax increase crucial to getting homeless off the street

Sheila Kuehl L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl stands in her home office, where she hangs family photographs and TV Guide covers from her acting career. ; Credit: Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Take Two
In a few months, L.A. County voters will consider a sales tax increase that will fund the homeless services necessary to "make a significant dent" in the area's homeless crisis, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to place the measure on the March 7 ballot. It would increase the county's sales tax from 9.25 percent to 9.5 percent, and it would expire after 10 years. It requires approval from 2/3 of voters to pass and it would raise an estimated $355 million annually for services like mental health counseling and substance abuse programs for the county's homeless. This measure comes on the heels of Measure HHH, which voters in the city of Los Angeles overwhelmingly approved in the November election, to fund the construction of ten thousand units of housing for the homeless. Now the issue goes to Los Angeles County voters—not just those living in the city of Los Angeles. Kuehl told Take Two's Alex Cohen the revenue from the proposed sales tax increase will make a "significant dent, if not do everything needed to get people into housing and get them the wraparound services" they need. "We’ll construct housing, but without the county and without this quarter-cent sales tax, I don’t think we can help people get off the street," she said. You can read highlights from the discussion below,

Interview highlights

What are the latest numbers on homelessness in LA County?

Supervisor Kuehl: We’re still using the number 47,000 that we identified during the last homeless count. We're about to enter into a new count... We're going to concentrate a little more strongly on finding transition-age youth and young people in their twenties because sometimes they’re homeless but they’re couch-surfing and so we haven’t been counting them as homeless. So it could be even more.

How much would this quarter-cent sales tax generate and what programs would the revenue fund?

Sup. Kuehl: It would generate [...] about $355 million a year. The reason that this is really important is that the people who live in the city of L.A. overwhelmingly approved Measure HHH in the last election and what that will do is eventually build as many as 10,000 units of housing, but it can only be used for capital. It cannot be used for the kinds of wraparound services that actually [are] what’s needed to end homelessness. It’s fine to say, "Here’s your house, bye-bye." But if you need mental health services, if you need addiction services, if you need training because how are you going to stay there without having a job of some kind?, it’s the county that’s called upon to provide these services. Our homeless initiative, which has a very well-delineated set of areas where we will use this estimated that to get the 47,000 [people] off the street would probably take maybe $450 million a year. But we’re going to tackle it, and $350 [million] is a good start on $450 [million], I’d say. So I’m really hoping everybody will say yes to this and we can provide the services.

If voters do approve this sales tax increase, how then would you make up that $100 million difference in funding?

Sup. Kuehl: Well, interestingly, we’ve already committed $150 million a year, and that doesn’t count what we’re putting in to affordable housing. What our health agency is doing in terms of homeless for health, where they do housing first and then services. I think we could make a significant dent, if not do everything needed to get people into housing and get them the wraparound services. Now, it’s not just mental health and health services or addiction services that we do. In our homelessness plan, we also fund programs to prevent homelessness. Perhaps you’re being evicted, and you might need some help with a couple of months’ rent. The county actually has a program that can help you with that, but we need to get that information out. We have homeless prevention programs for individuals and families. We subsidize housing. We do rapid re-housing, so if you’ve just lost your home, we don’t want you to end up on the street. We want to get you right back into something and hopefully in the same area where you were living. We provide subsidized housing to disabled people, people on SSI… but mostly the money goes for case management and services, jail in-reach — so that when you’re getting out of jail you don’t end up on the street. There’s a lot that we do. This money, along with the $150 million we put in every year, will really help us to get there.

Is there a concern that taxpayers might have a limited appetite for what they're willing to pay to solve this problem?

Sup. Kuehl: It’s possible. And yet when you ask people what’s on their mind about the greatest problems in the county, so many more people come up with the answer: homelessness, homeless people. It bothers people that in, allegedly, the richest country in the world, we’ve got thousands of people living on the street, just in our county. So, I think people are still aware, and if we explain appropriately that the money they have taxed themselves will build housing and that’s it, I think the county is the safety net, the county provides the services. The state is also going to be building housing for homeless people. They're going to use a portion of mental health funds from Prop 63 to issue a bond — so it’s going to be wonderful. We’ll construct housing, but without the county and without this quarter-cent sales tax, I don’t think we can help people get off the street.
This content is from Southern California Public Radio. View the original story at SCPR.org.