Va Lecia Adams Kellum: Persistent agent of change on homelessness

Va Lecia Adams Kellum
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, photographed at the Los Angeles Times in El Segundo on Sept. 8.

When the cleanup of homeless camps in Venice three years ago gave a megaphone to a flamboyant sheriff and created battle lines of opposing community activists, one measured voice emerged from the cacophony.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum, then the president and chief executive of Venice-based St. Joseph Center, secured beds in nearby motels and flooded the beachfront with case workers. As city sanitation trucks lumbered over the boardwalk behind her, Adams Kellum faced the media, promising that every person would be moved but not before each received an offer of a better place to sleep.

The monthlong campaign became the template for Inside Safe, Mayor Karen Bass' program that has cleared out about 50 of the city's toughest encampments.

After helping shape that program as a member of Bass' transition team, Adams Kellum, 58, took on the most daunting job in L.A.'s fractured homeless services system.

Selected in March last year as chief executive of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, Adams Kellum brings a strong personality and street experience to an agency that had been led by bureaucrats for nearly a decade under intensifying demands for it to be restructured or even dissolved.

'We should be driving, which means leading. We should be coming up with strategic direction.'

Va Lecia Adams Kellum

The joint-powers authority conducts the annual homeless count, distributes federal homeless funds, employs outreach teams and maintains the homeless database.

And yet, despite growing several times over with ballooning city and county funds, the agency hasn't been deeply involved in coming up with workable plans to get people off the streets and into housing.

Adams Kellum said she intends to change that.

Va Lecia Adams Kellum
Va Lecia Adams Kellum

"This mission is pretty clear," she said. "We should be driving, which means leading. We should be coming up with strategic direction."

Her first year has tested that resolve as she confronted bureaucratic sluggishness.

Frustrated with the numerous contract amendments that slow reimbursements to service providers, she booted the authority's chief financial and data officers.

"I asked the finance team, ‘Can you imagine a time when we have less amendments?'" Adams Kellum told the L.A. County Board of Supervisors during a hearing on the payment problems. "Sadly, some of those people aren’t with me any longer. I didn’t get an answer that I thought was what I should hear."

She said that's just the beginning.

"I’m one year into this role, and I didn’t build this system," she told the supervisors. "But I know it must be rebuilt because the suffering on the streets demands it."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.