Va Lecia Adams Kellum appointed new head of L.A. city-county homelessness agency

Los Angeles, CA - December 21: Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, left, President and CEO of St. Joseph Center and Los Angele Mayor Karen Bass, right, speak during a press conference at The People Concern on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Los Angeles, CA. Bass joins service providers and experts to sign her Executive Directive launching Inside Safe, Los Angeles' first citywide proactive housing-led strategy to bring people inside from tents and encampments for good, and to prevent encampments from returning. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, left, president and chief executive of St. Joseph Center, with Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass at a news conference in December. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's new chief executive is no stranger to the often contentious and closely watched efforts to remove tents from public spaces and get homeless people indoors.

She's managed and run many of them.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum will now take on a bigger challenge: Attempting to chart a path for the much maligned joint-powers authority, whose mission and management has been under the microscope in recent years. Adams Kellum's appointment was approved by the agency's board of commissioners, which is made up of people appointed by elected officials from the city and county.

"Together we will transform LAHSA into an instrument of systemic change and a model for addressing homelessness on our streets. Each of us knows the time is now for action," Adams Kellum said at a news conference Monday, flanked by Mayor Karen Bass, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, county Board of Supervisors Chair Janice Hahn and a host of other officials.

"As we all see the extraordinary amount of human suffering in our communities, we must not delay in doing the work," she added.

In discussing Adams Kellum's appointment, each elected official touted the theme of closer collaboration and a more convivial relationship between the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. Each plays a role in the complex funding and coordination of resources and services devoted to combat homelessness.

LAHSA — which was born out of a lawsuit between the city and county — is funded by both and beholden in different ways to elected officials from each entity. The lack of clarity about LAHSA's role has been a source of much consternation in recent years even as its annual budget has grown to close to $730 million.

It is anything but settled what the direction of the agency will be, but elected officials said it must move with much more urgency in addressing the crisis.

"LAHSA coordinates homelessness and the resources and all that, but we want to have it be a much more decisive role," Bass said. "One of the problems has been [articulating] who is the actual leader? Who is the actual decision maker? So given this new spirit of cooperation that we have, I think you will see LAHSA 's role be much more clearly defined in the next few months."

Adams Kellum is close to Bass and has been working closely in the first weeks of her administration to help coordinate the clearing of encampments in Venice and Hollywood. St. Joseph Center, the Venice nonprofit she has run since 2008, did much of the outreach and work to find hotel rooms for people staying in these encampments for the intermediate period.

In the summer of 2021, St. Joseph Center received $5 million from the city to help move people living in a large encampment along Ocean Front Walk in Venice. Angry residents and business owners felt the city had been slow to react to the proliferation of tents there.

About half of the funds went to renting motel rooms for more than 200 people. Much of the rest went toward staff to supervise the outreach and operations of the motels. Of the 213 people moved off Ocean Front Walk, 109 have found permanent housing. She has said that it’s much easier to get people paired with a housing subsidy and into permanent housing if they’re indoors already.

That effort has served as a model for what Bass is trying to do now — and Adams Kellum will initially be an advisor to Bass working in City Hall. She will take on her new role at some point in the spring at an annual salary of $430,000, according to LAHSA documents. She replaces Stephen Simon, who directs the city's Department of Disability and had been serving in an interim capacity since Heidi Marston resigned over a conflict with the board last spring.

The appointment was announced the day before the launch of LAHSA's 2023 point in time count during which thousands of volunteers will fan out across the county over three days counting people on the street, tents, shelters and vehicles. The count will cover the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys Tuesday, the Westside and Eastside Wednesday and South Los Angeles, the Metro area and the Antelope Valley Thursday. Results are expected in late spring or early summer.

During the press conference, officials encouraged Angelenos to volunteer in their community.

Much of Adams Kellum's early work will be about mollifying frustrations over the impact — or lack thereof — that the agency has had in stemming the growth of homelessness. Much of that anger has been expressed by members of the Board of Supervisors including Hahn, the chair, who said she'd be rooting for Adams Kellum but expecting changes and results.

"I've had my doubts about LAHSA," Hahn said. "What LAHSA has done, and, frankly, what our county and our city has done so far to address this crisis, I believe, hasn't worked."

After speaking about her hopes for the role and the work ahead of her, Adams Kellum turned to the elected officials standing behind her and found Hahn.

"Business as usual, is unacceptable," she said. "Thank you again, Mayor Bass, and Chairwoman Hahn, we're going to change your mind."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.