In early February, a storm was set to hit LA and the city and county were urging people seeking shelter to call the 211 LA hotline, a central resource for callers seeking everything from housing to food to childcare.

Two volunteers with mutual aid group Ktown For All, Meredith Alden Lewis and Eleanor Batista-Malat, tried to do exactly what local government officials told them to: they called the 211 winter shelter hotline to secure emergency shelter for a woman they encountered lying on the sidewalk.

Despite being given multiple numbers to call by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and the city, they said no one answered or the number routed back to 211. When they did reach an operator, they hit dead end after dead end. 

But the experience of mutual aid volunteers is not just anecdotal – trying to follow the guidelines set out by the city and the county and failing to access critical resources during a storm is the norm. Of the over 13,000 calls to its winter shelter line, 211 LA was only able to answer about 5700 (or about 44% of calls). Wait times averaged about 48 minutes but could be over four hours. In the end, 211 distributed 372 motel vouchers and reserved shelter space for 411 people at congregate winter shelter or Recreation and Parks shelter sites, according to numbers provided by the agency.

“It felt like being gaslit. The tone of communication was like, ‘We got this! No problem! Here are these resources, here are these numbers, here’s where you go, here’s what you do. And none of it was real. All of it was fake. And nobody knew anything,” said Lewis. “How is anyone who is trying to access help supposed to ever trust them ever again?”

Why is 211 under-resourced? Staff at 211 LA say that the city and county of LA have failed to provide adequate funding for the number of staff required to handle the volume of calls. When callers do get through, there aren’t enough shelter beds or motel vouchers to meet the need.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ office did not clarify if the Mayor knew 211 was under-resourced when they recommended people reach out or if they have a plan to change or adapt their strategy in the future.

“The Mayor’s Office advised people to call 211 because that is one of two avenues to distribute hotel vouchers and access to emergency shelters to unhoused individuals; the second avenue is through LAHSA outreach teams,” said Clara Karger, press secretary to Bass. “During this inclement weather, 211 helped to get more than 500 hotel vouchers across the City/County and provided other assistance as well.”

Representatives for LA County told LA Public Press that the county is working on strategies to reduce 211 wait times. The county is also looking into overhauling the current 211 program and implementing a new public-private partnership model.

Desperate, angry, frustrated

According to a report from 211 LA about last year’s Augmented Winter Shelter program, heavy rain and cold weather left many callers desperate for shelter even as available beds quickly ran out. Callers were angry and frustrated when they finally got through to a representative and there were no beds available.

The report recommended providing more funding to hire the number of staff required to answer the volume of calls to the winter shelter line. However, 211 LA says that though the recommendations it sent to the city and county of LA and to LAHSA may have been acknowledged, these entities did not increase funding for more call center representatives.

“When we are only funded with 13 people, when we’ve been clear, it takes about 51 people — That’s going to be a problem,” said Amy Latzer, chief operating officer of 211 LA.

“Even if more people got through, there’s only so many resources to give.”

211 LA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1981 to provide information and resources to callers. Most of its funding comes from a core contract with LA County.

For this season, LA County allocated $157,910 for the 211 winter shelter hotline and $1,256,640 for motel vouchers, according to numbers provided by the county. In addition, LA County said in an email that it can increase funding for the program if there are inclement weather events that require more resources.

Latzer encourages people who have the resources to self-serve by going to the website and calling shelters themselves.

Batista-Malat said that city and county officials haven’t offered any clarity on why 211 failed to work for their mutual aid efforts. “That’s definitely not the messaging we ever get,” said Batista-Malat. “I think it just really speaks to the fragmentation of our system where I learn things through [speaking to a reporter], which is no way that we should be learning about how the system is supposed to work.”

Lack of adequate staffing isn’t the only problem addressed in the report, which lays out in bullet points multiple levels of bureaucratic dysfunction. The program also experienced significant financial strain caused by LAHSA’s contract execution and amendment system. LAHSA only advances 17% of allocated funds for the program. Latzer explained that due to multiple days of rain and cold last year, in order to increase the budget to meet the need, LAHSA had to execute “on-the-fly” contract amendments, a process that takes at least 10 days. 211 LA can only invoice once the contract amendment is approved.

LAHSA is a joint powers authority created in 1993 by the city and county of Los Angeles to oversee programs and services for the region’s unhoused population. Funding for programs like 211 LA must go through LAHSA. 

According to the report, 211 LA was often owed $1 to $2 million by LAHSA and had to take out a line of credit to pay vendors. Some motels even threatened to kick everyone out of their vouchered motel rooms and go to the press with their complaints.

According to Latzer, LAHSA has been more responsive and is trying to expedite payments to avoid what happened last winter, but it’s still too soon to tell if the problems have been resolved since there haven’t been any heavy activations so far this season.

Spokesperson Christopher Yee stated in an email that “LAHSA is proactively making adjustments, including in key leadership positions, to transform LAHSA’s financial infrastructure and to ensure service providers and other partners are paid in a timely manner.”

Miguel Fernandez, acting director of interim housing at LAHSA, told LA City Council that about 1,000 people were brought inside during the rain in early February. To respond to future inclement weather events, LAHSA is in the process of creating a year-round program and plans to expand access to motel vouchers.

Is the 211 hotline an outdated model for connecting people to shelter?

Sade Kammen, a social worker and volunteer with Water Drop LA who distributes storm supplies in Skid Row, has been trying to secure shelter for seven people in the past month by calling 211 — so far, they haven’t succeeded.

“211 is really noise-sensitive. So it’s virtually impossible to call 211 and have it hear you outside,” they said.

She’s been pitching a resource-finding app that directs people to available services beyond just shelter. 

“The city needs to get fucking real. They’re not getting people inside or not getting people housing, right? So, where can you meet them?” said Kammen. “At least help them find the resources that will let them live through this storm.”

There is an app for tracking shelter bed availability, but the agency that created it doesn’t have the power to implement it. 

Last year, the LA Controller’s office created a Shelter Bed Availability Map to demonstrate how the city can effectively track available beds. Under the current system, interim housing providers are not mandated by LAHSA to provide accurate and up-to-date reporting on the number of beds available. 

“Since our audit was released, we have been getting occupancy reports from the majority of the interim housing sites, but they’re wholly inaccurate,” said Ashley Bennett, the director of homelessness for the LA Controller. “There are sites that we know are full 24/7, 365 days a year that are reporting 0% occupancy.”

A lack of an accurate real-time tracking system means that 211 operators can’t connect people to interim housing without making multiple calls to service providers to make sure that beds are available.

In its report on last year’s Augmented Winter Shelter program, 211 LA notes that the current system required by LAHSA, the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), has a “cumbersome” registration process and doesn’t offer API integration, causing delays in updating data.

Although LAHSA is trying to implement a new system, says Bennett, there is still a lack of political will to mandate that service providers provide accurate data.

Last December, LAHSA said that it would have the new system in place by the end of 2024, but recent upheavals at the agency call this timeline into question. As reported by LAist, chief information officer at LAHSA, Emily Vaughn Henry, recently departed the agency in a wave of high-profile exits, and major issues were raised last year with how LAHSA tracks people leaving the Inside Safe motel program. 

The politics of service resistance

A real-time map of interim shelter availability would show what advocates and unhoused people already know: there’s not enough shelter to go around — for every three unsheltered people in the city of LA, there is only one bed available.

“You often hear this narrative about people being service resistant. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Bennett.

The idea that people are refusing help is used to justify punitive policies that punish unhoused people for being in public space.

“People often talk about, ‘Oh, we have so many services available, why don’t people just use them?’ But I’ve been volunteering with Ktown For All in the outreach capacity for over two and a half years. And I’ve never once been able to get somebody into a shelter when they need it. Not once,” said Lewis.

There are legal ramifications as well, as the LA Controller’s office points out in its report, including whether or not the city is violating the constitutional rights of unhoused people. According to a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, cities can’t enforce anti-camping ordinances unless they can show that an adequate number of beds are available.

The city of LA has expanded 41.18 zones throughout the city, criminalizing sitting, lying, sleeping or storing belongings in the public-right-way. 

“Should we really be enforcing 41.18?” asked Bennett. “Because there’s supposed to be an offer of shelter that goes along with enforcing things like that.”

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.