March 30, 2020

Rabbi Noah Farkas leads faith-based approach with agency helping homeless

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom has taken charge of Los Angeles’ homelessness agency as two new tax measures are beginning to provide the agency with millions of additional dollars to address the city’s growing homelessness problem.

At an Aug. 10 meeting, the 10-member governing board of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) appointed the 38-year-old rabbi as its chairman.

Farkas’ leadership comes at a watershed moment for the authority. In the last year, L.A. voters have passed two tax measures to equip LAHSA with new funds intended to house the homeless: Proposition HHH, a county measure approved in November to build new housing units; and Measure H, a citywide sales tax passed in March to pay for services such as counseling and addiction treatment. Proposition HHH is slated to bring in $1.2 billion, while Measure H is projected to raise more than $3.5 billion over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the county’s homeless population is on the rise, jumping 23 percent from January 2016 to January 2017, to nearly 58,000, according to the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.

A 2008 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Farkas has made homelessness a centerpiece of his rabbinate at the Conservative synagogue in Encino, frequently sermonizing on the topic and entering into interfaith partnerships to address it. In 2015, County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl appointed him to a seat on the commission that oversees LAHSA, a 24-year-old partnership between Los Angeles city and county.

He spoke with the Journal on Aug. 10, shortly after being sworn in as the commission’s chair, about his hopes and aims for his one-year term. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jewish Journal: As a rabbi and as a Jew, what do you feel you bring to the LAHSA chairmanship?

Noah Farkas: My role on the commission, given my background as a faith leader, is to bring a moral voice when I think morality needs to be injected into the system, to bring a calming voice when voices of disagreement arise on a certain level. I might not understand every budget line; I might not understand every rubric for funding or every reason why every political decision is made, but what I understand more fundamentally than anything else is that it’s because of the work of the commission and the agency it oversees that people get off the street and have a chance at life again.

JJ: City officials suggest from time to time that L.A.’s homelessness crisis be declared an emergency, either on the state or national level. What would that mean? Do you think homelessness is an emergency in Los Angeles?

NF: On a moral level, I don’t see a difference between an emergency that happened in one night and an emergency that happened over 15 years. It’s a slow-moving catastrophe that has built to this point, where we have nearly 60,000 people in the county who have been displaced because of mental illness, because of poverty, because of high rents and housing crises.

If there were 60,000 people displaced because of a mudslide or a fire or an earthquake, we would declare it as a state of emergency. The solutions around Measure H and Prop. HHH are excellent funding vehicles, but that money’s not coming from the state, that money’s not coming from the national government, that money’s only coming from ourselves. By declaring a state of emergency, we can open additional streams of funding and fast track our way into the solutions to this problem.

JJ: The homeless population jumped by nearly a quarter in 2016. How do you explain that increase?

NF: We voted in November and then again in the spring for these new funding strategies, but they didn’t come through until July 1. So all the money that we raised through bonds and taxes to pay for all of the funding strategies didn’t fund till last month. The homeless count takes place in January, so the uptick was expected in some ways because we hadn’t funded anything yet; we had just approved it. My guess is in the coming year, the numbers won’t change all that significantly, but in the following year, that is when we expect to make major gains because the funding would have hit the streets.

JJ: That explains why homelessness has gone up in general. But what explains such a huge increase between last year in particular?

NF: The counting has gotten a lot more comprehensive. So what happens is, when you have a bigger flashlight, you can see more things. That’s definitely part of it. But the housing vacancy rate is now the lowest in the country for the first time. It’s less than 2 percent. Of all the apartments, all the rooms, all the houses in the entire continuum, only 2 percent on any given day are unoccupied. That means, though, that if you’re looking for a place to live, you’re competing with all these other people. So that’s a big driver. You have a tighter housing market. The third piece is we haven’t really successfully dealt with mental illness and trauma in the way that we have to. I guess I would add one more piece. In trying to correct mass incarceration in California, a lot of people who are exiting the criminal justice system are exiting into homelessness, because we don’t have the proper infrastructure in place. So that adds another upward pressure on the number.

JJ: It takes a while to build housing for the homeless. What is LAHSA doing in the meanwhile to help people who are on the streets today?

NF: The long-term solution is to build infrastructure with wraparound services because we know in models across the country that people who are experiencing homelessness, if you give them a place to live and give them opportunity to deal with their traumas and addictions, that they will no longer be homeless. But it can take 18 months to two years to build a single building to be a hub for these programs. So we’re not there yet.

In the meantime, there are other opportunities that LAHSA has already engaged in. The first is the rapid expansion of what are called ERT teams, emergency response teams. They’re essentially pairs of people who are trained in counseling and social work and mental health services that actually go out to the ravines and they go out to Skid Row and all over the city to engage with people who are homeless and get them entered into the system so we can track them and help them. There are 50 teams and at any given time, two-thirds of them are out. In the past, there were only about half of that, if not less.

JJ: What was broken in the social fabric of Los Angeles that made it necessary to pass new tax measures? And how is that going to change under your leadership?

NF: The homelessness count is like taking a temperature of whether or not the city has a fever. Having a high temperature, that’s not the thing that’s making you sick. There are other things that are making you sick. It’s the same way with homelessness. People who are experiencing homelessness are an indicator of whether the city is doing right
by its own residents, morally and in a humanitarian way. And the city got really sick. It still is.

Luckily, we’ve decided to address it. We have to really service the root causes, which are poverty, mental illness and, ultimately, the housing crisis. Homelessness is also key to understanding inequality. I’m a social justice rabbi; I’m not just a homelessness rabbi. But this is a road in, this is a way of working on social justice from the bottom up. I can’t abide as a rabbi and a Jew seeing people suffer, and I see people suffering.