“We have the fourth-highest homeless count in all of L.A. County and we get the least amount of resources,” says Judy Cooperberg, regional director of Mental Health America.
“And downtown L.A., skid row, has 19 percent of the homeless in the whole county but get 49 percent of the money,” says Steve Baker of Grace Resource Center in Lancaster, the valley’s biggest homeless services agency.
Look at the numbers and it would seem Baker and Cooperberg have their work cut out for them.
L.A. County's most recent homeless count tallied over 6,000 homeless people in the Antelope Valley. That’s about four times the amount counted in 2011. Local service providers say the spike is mainly due to a more efficient counting process.
But officials in Lancaster say it's evidence that the L.A. County’s homeless services department is actually directing homeless people to their city some 80 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
“As far as I’m concerned, what the county does to underprivileged people by getting them to come up here is a homicide,” says Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris.
He says not only is L.A. County steering the homeless to his city, it is also withholding critical funds for the city’s small network of public services.
“L.A. (County) could fix it that fast,” says Parris, snapping his fingers. “But they won’t. So hopefully we can embarrass them enough to say, 'Hey, this is not a solution.' ”
While there’s no concrete evidence to back up claims of homeless dumping in Lancaster, the city hinted earlier this year that it might sue the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) over the alleged withholding of funds.
LAHSA spokesman George McQuade says the agency isn’t withholding anything. “Since 2009 Lancaster has applied for zero, I repeat zero, federal funds for homeless services under the McKinney-Vento Act,” says McQuade.
McQuade is referring to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money earmarked for specific uses. LAHSA is responsible for delivering those federal dollars based on a demonstrated need.
Baker of Grace Resource Center, which operates the Antelope Valley’s only shelter, says the region doesn’t qualify for a sizable chunk of that HUD money because much of it is directed to permanent supportive housing -- a priority for the federal government but something not widely available in the Antelope Valley.
“We didn’t ask for some of the funds because some of it was specific to things we can’t provide here,” says Baker. “We don’t have enough housing to do permanent supportive housing because a lot of the older housing was so old it got torn down."
What Lancaster really needs from the county, says Cooperberg of Mental Health America, is more money for supportive services like shelter beds, substance abuse programs and psychiatric counseling.
She says valley agencies feel at a disadvantage because of their remote location and what’s perceived as an overemphasis on L.A.’s skid row. “And that’s a fight we’ve been having for many years,” says Cooperberg.
According to figures provided by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, requests for funding, including from the city of Lancaster, are being met.
LAHSA’s McQuade says it’s a competitive process. Sometimes cities and agencies get the full amount requested, sometimes they don’t.
He also adds that LAHSA officials earlier this year traveled to Lancaster and met with city leaders to explain the full range of funding options and how to obtain them.
“They seemed very receptive, but I think they were not really informed,” says McQuade. “They didn’t know what resources were available, so we explained all that to them and we offered an open-door policy, call us anytime, come on down and meet with us and we’ll be willing to help you."
As well intentioned as Lancaster’s renewed involvement in the region’s homeless problem may be, Cooperberg says it’s late in coming: “My question is, why is it that the city of Lancaster, all of the sudden it’s an issue?”
She also worries it could actually jeopardize inroads made with county officials that hold the purse strings.
“And we’ve been begging them to advocate with us (for years) and all the sudden they are, and they are not going about it in a very collaborative way,” says Cooperberg.
Coopersburg points to the city’s threat of lawsuits, and its recent crusade to shutter its only Metrolink station over unsubstantiated claims that it’s a magnet for the homeless.
It’s not the first time Lancaster has been accused of mishandling the issue of homelessness.