Homelessness, mental health and school safety: a conversation with Supervisor Kathryn Barger

SIGNAL FILE PHOTO: Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing the 5th District

Amidst vital debates going on over a housing crisis, homelessness and a growing need for mental health resources, among a number of statewide issues that are impacting L.A. County and the Santa Clarita Valley, Supervisor Kathryn Barger sat down with The Signal to discuss leadership priorities for 2020.

Barger, who comes to the office with more than 30 years of experience in L.A. County — including a long stint as chief of staff to her predecessor, former 5th District Supervisor Michael Antonovich — was recently named chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors by her peers for a one-year term. 

Barger represents the county Board of Supervisors’ district that includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and extends to San Bernardino County in the east, Ventura County heading west and Kern County in the north, with a population of approximately 2 million people.

She spoke with The Signal recently to discuss everything from the challenges of speaking on behalf of more than 100 individual communities from Acton to Wrightwood to school safety to her re-election bid.

Over the past three decades, Barger, who was elected her current position in 2016, has seen a transformation of the 5th District, as the issues facing her constituents have continued to evolve, she said. 

“The 5th District has changed, even in terms of boundaries, from when I first started,” said Barger. “I’ve seen the demographics change and, additionally, I’ve seen the complexity of the issues change.” 

Campus security, for example, is a huge issue that has created a completely different environment for students in the last three decades, which is something she just met with local superintendents to discuss. There are also a number of new challenges that come with the new issues, such as making sure mental health services are available to help the youth. 

“This is a huge change for me,” said Barger. “I think that society as a whole has changed.” 

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, representing the 5th district visits The Signal to discuss ideas and goals she plans to accomplish during her time as chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

“What is working in La Verne is not going to work in the Antelope Valley,” she said, referencing the large area the 5th District encompasses. With that in mind, she tries to put politics and partisanship aside when working with county residents, she added.

“Even when it comes to setting aside my own personal beliefs, it’s about doing what is right for your constituents,” said Barger.

In her time as a supervisor, Barger has introduced motions to address these concerns, with measures that have expanded capacity for hospital beds and services for veterans who experience homelessness. 

With every issue that Barger addresses, she goes after the root cause, she said, which is the only way to fully addressed an issue. 

Providing school security 

Last week, Barger met with William S. Hart Union High School District officials to discuss school security, following the Saugus High School shooting on Nov. 14. 

“We don’t want to build fortresses for these kids to go to,” said Barger. “The goal is to speak with one voice and reassure the community that the schools are safe.” 

From the county’s perspective, they want to support the school district by providing resources for mental health and continuing the implementation of school resource officers on every campus. 

“I have no authority over gun control, but I can talk about mental health resources,” said Barger. “I made the commitment that day (of the Saugus Shooting) that (the superintendents and I) are going to work together and help students in the community.”

Authorities arrive at Saugus High School on Thursday, Nov. 14, after a student opened fire on campus. Tammy Murga/The Signal

Getting back to a sense of community is a crucial step toward recovery, according to Barger. 

“Schools are focusing on getting back to the basics and forcing kids to understand a sense of community, which I think is lost now,” said Barger. “I’m going to work with them on that.” 

Continuing the use of school resource officers on campus and expanding mental health resources to be accessible to all students on campus is what Barger believes will make SCV students feel safe in their community again. 

Addressing Homelessness 

In December, the former director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority stepped down in the midst of the rollout of Measure H, a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax created to combat homelessness, leaving the board to find a replacement to manage the multi-billion-dollar assistance plan. 

“We are looking at LAHSA and the structure as it relates to a new director,” said Barger. “I think it is time for us to pivot and put together something that is going to be countywide and is going to be willing to bend, while realizing that every city has different needs.” 

LAHSA was initially seen as the solution to battling homelessness on a countywide level; however, constituents in Barger’s cities thought the program was more city-centric and mainly served the city of Los Angeles, and they were not getting their fair share. 

“We looked at how slowly the bureaucracy was rolling the money out and they were right,” said Barger. “I realized that LAHSA is not structured in a way to address the needs of countywide homeless programs.” 

“I believe we need to rethink the whole premise of what LAHSA does,” Barger adds. 

Building capacity in the community starts with more beds, Barger said. To address the shortage of mental health hospital beds, Barger moved to add 500 beds over the next two years. This addition would help prevent the cycling of homeless individuals with mental illness and often co-occurring substance use disorder in and out of hospitals and on and off the streets with no sustainable path to recovery, according to a motion report. 

“A month ago, I brought in a motion to instruct (the Department of) Mental Health to begin purchasing beds because I didn’t feel we can wait that long,” she said. 

Part of the goal is to create increased synergy, so agencies can work together to support the growing needs, according to county officials, who have recognized the efforts Barger is making toward improvement. 

“Supervisor Barger is an incredible leader in the mental health space and her work in the county is unparalleled,” said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the Department of Mental Health Los Angeles County. 

Barger plans to apply for the Institute for Mental Diseases waiver, which could provide the county with a stable funding stream for more beds over the next two years, she said. 

Assisting veterans and first responders 

Barger also is working to improve access to veterans services, the latest move being the addition of a designated Veterans Administration representative for her office, who will be available to go over veterans’ entitlements, as well as any other potential resources that might help. Barger was shocked to learn how many veterans were unaware of the status of their benefits.

“You should never have to use the word ‘homeless’ and ‘veterans’ in the same sentence, especially when you see how much money the federal government puts into veterans programs,” said Barger. 

Barger lauded the Santa Clarita Valley’s Homes 4 Families veteran communities, which allow veterans to put sweat equity into building their own homes, which the program then assists them in purchasing. The first-of-its-kind community was built off Centre Pointe Parkway in Canyon Country. 

Ben Dibene, Danielle Deleon, Jose Ramirez, Juan Bran, and, Robert Nolde, A joint effort between Team Depot, Homes4Families and U.S. military veterans work together to build a community for veterans. Gilbert Bernal\The Signal

Barger also said she wanted to increase the resources available to help first responders, including those who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. With the introduction of peer-to-peer training, those in the same line of work are able to help one another. 

“What first responders and sheriff’s deputies see on a daily basis, is the best and the worst,” said Barger. “You’ve got to balance it out with services to support their mental well-being.”

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