The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority is rehousing more people than ever, but that doesn’t keep up with the number of people becoming homeless every day, Executive Director Heidi Marston said Thursday.
“I do know that it’s hard to reconcile, how is it that we’re ending homelessness for more people than ever compared to what we see on the street,” Marston said.
“The challenge we have to remember is that every day on average 207 people make their way back into housing either with our help or on their own, and at the same time, 227 people are pushed into homelessness everyday.”
About 568,000 people in the United States are experiencing homelessness, with 151,000 in California, 66,436 in Los Angeles County and 41,290 in Los Angeles, according to LAHSA’s homelessness count last year. This year’s count was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During Thursday’s 2021 State of Homelessness town hall, Marston cited five reasons homelessness has risen locally and nationally:
— the cost of living has risen while incomes have remained stagnant (Los Angeles renters would need a 2.8 times higher minimum wage to afford the average monthly rent of $2,182);
— governments have divested in affordable housing (in the last decade, California cut redevelopment spending from $1 billion to zero);
— governments have divested in mental health (the California Lanterman-Petris-Short Act signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967 ended a mental health system that hasn’t been replaced);
— tenants are not protected enough and land use is discriminatory; and
— 60% of Los Angeles’ homeless population has served time in prison.
Marston noted that some regions, such as Bakersfield and Connecticut, that have successfully reduced the number of people experiencing homelessness have led in three areas: prevention, rehousing and building housing so supply meets demand.
Los Angeles has invested heavily in rehousing, but the city does not have enough housing to keep up with demand, Marston said.
Los Angeles County has roughly the same number of housing units now, with a population of 10 million, as it did when the population was 6 million, according to Marston, who said this was due to policy choices that have restricted housing development and driven up prices.
Additionally, sky-rocketing rents have made it too expensive for many people in Los Angeles County to live.
“Homelessness rises when median rents in a region exceed 22% of median income and rises even more sharply at 32%,” according to Marston. However, Los Angeles’ median rents are 46.7% of median income.
The LAHSA is working to address the problem through access centers, outreach, support services, interim housing, transitional housing and permanent housing. There are 240 outreach teams of more than 850 people, Marston said. The group reached 46,533 people experiencing homelessness in 2020.
When team members make contact with a person experiencing homelessness, they conduct triage work or “problem solving” to provide onetime assistance to get people back on their feet, such as car repair, rent assistance or legal eviction support.
Last year, LAHSA enrolled 27,325 people into a shelter, a 5% increase over the year before.
Before the pandemic hit, LAHSA’s system increased the number of people sheltered by 25%, Marston said, however during the COVID-19 pandemic, congregate shelters had to adapt to social distancing and operate at only 50% of capacity.
“The goal again is to get everybody in housing,” Marston said. “All the research shows that once someone has stabilized in housing, they start to recover in every other aspect of their life.”
While temporary housing works to quickly get people off the street and into shelter, it’s actually more expensive than permanent housing, Marston noted.
In 2020, LAHSA helped 20,690 people experiencing homelessness move into permanent housing.
“This is a small decrease from the year before, it’s about (an) 11% decrease, but again it was largely driven by the pivot (toward temporary shelter) that we needed to make when COVID hit,” Marston said.
LAHSA received more state and federal funding during the COVID-19 pandemic to help an additional 10,000 people into shelter through Project Roomkey, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks shelters and Los Angeles County quarantine facilities.
“I do want to acknowledge that over the past year we’ve seen more tents and encampments in places that we’re not used to seeing them,” Marston said.
“It’s hard to know if this is because there’s an increase, I think a lot of it is driven by CDC guidance, which tells people to create social distancing, to shelter in place, which has let a lot of encampments in particular to spread out and take up more space.”
Over the year, 35% of the clients served by LAHSA were Black, 34% were Latino, and 46.7% of housing placements were Black families or individuals.
While Black people only represent 8% of the county’s general population, they account for 33% of the county’s homeless population in part due to legacies of systemic racism and discrimination, Marston said.
Overall, in the last three years, LAHSA has rehoused 64,568 people.
In response to an email from City News Service about Marston’s comment about government spending on mental health care, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said, “The county has prioritized more effective engagement and continuum of care for those experiencing acute mental health emergencies.”
“We will not be able to adequately serve those suffering from mental illness unless we have the proper resources to engage them,” Barger said. “This includes mental health emergency call lines, partnerships with law enforcement to form engagement teams, and community resources that connect residents to services.
“When they are engaged, we also need the proper corresponding services that meet those experiencing emergencies of various severity. This includes urgent care centers, permanent supportive housing and transitional housing.”
Barger said the county government is “pursuing funding for beds and services at the local, state and federal level. It is critical to ensuring our residents are humanely served and our homeless population is effectively reached.”
Barger said the “biggest thing” the county government can do “is ensure families have the resources available to help their own family members before it is too late.
“Often severe mental health emergencies are compounded by a disconnection from community, a disconnection that occurs because the family does not have adequate support or resources to help,” Barger said.
“Our residents’ mental health is best protected and nurtured when they are able to live in community with family and friends, and we need to make better available those resources so that these individuals can remain with their support system.”
Barger said the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act “was critical at ending abuses that had taken place for decades in our mental health system” but “significantly removed beds in our state and local health systems and removed the county’s ability to engage those who are most in need.”
“Because of the way this law is currently written, we cannot intervene on all who are severely mentally ill,” Barger said. “Currently the county can only provide involuntary long-term care to those who are a danger to themselves or others or are `gravely disabled,’ defined as those who are unable to provide food, clothing and shelter.
“This definition has proven to be legally limited, and is ineffective in serving the most vulnerable. At least three people every day die on the streets of L.A. County from preventable diseases, lives that could be saved if we could step in.
“We are not trying to confine more people against their will, but meet the spirit of the original LPS law which was to allow the county to intervene for those in the most dire and destitute situations.”