Even before the coronavirus devastated the economy, the Southland’s homeless population had already grown significantly from the previous year, with efforts to provide housing again outpaced by the number of people falling into homelessness, according to figures released this week.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the homeless count conducted in January found that the county’s homeless population increased by 12.7% over the previous year, while the city of Los Angeles’ homeless population jumped by 14.2%.
In January 2019, Los Angeles County had 58,936 homeless people, but this year’s number rose to 66,433. The city of Los Angeles counted 36,165 in 2019, and 41,290 in January.
According to LAHSA, the agency put more people in housing in the past year than ever before, but the number of people falling into homelessness over the same period continued to exceed the rate at which people were being housed.
“The homeless count numbers are a snapshot of what the world looked like in January — but today, the world looks different,” LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston said. “I also want to be clear that homelessness is a byproduct of racism, which is woven into the fabric of every system nationwide. If we want to see homelessness go down, we have to go upstream to dismantle systemic racism. We use the homeless count as a tool, but it’s not the only tool we have.”
LAHSA’s data showed that black residents are four times as likely to be homeless in Los Angeles County, while the number of white people who are homeless roughly tracks their share of the overall population. Latino residents are slightly underrepresented in the homeless count relative to their population share. The report concludes that 15,000 fewer people would be homeless if not for institutional racism.
Elise Buik, the president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said the city’s passage of Proposition HHH and the county’s adoption of Measure H, both of which commit funding to build permanent supportive housing and shelters, helped get people off the streets, but it’s not enough.
“We’ve seen our rehousing system ramp up to help serve our most vulnerable and move into high-gear to respond to COVID-19,” Buik said. “Now it’s time to create an L.A. County where no one spends more than 30% of their income on housing. We’ll need to build more housing, prevent more homelessness and get federal, state, county and city funds working together to do it.”
Other Southland counties also saw rises in homeless populations, although they may be counting biennially, while Los Angeles has committed to annual point-in-time counts. San Diego County was the only Southland region that saw a decrease in its homeless population, according to LAHSA.
The homeless services agency has not yet released a breakdown of the data by city and community, however, Santa Monica officials said an independent point-in-time count showed homelessness in that city had decreased by 8% since last year. The number of homeless individuals on the beach and in the downtown Santa Monica area decreased even more dramatically, by 14%, according to local officials.
“The local numbers contrast with regional increases, and make clear that Santa Monica’s street-based outreach model for persons experiencing homelessness does work,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown. “We are encouraged to continue our effective one-person-at-a-time, coordinated approach to services that further reduce homelessness. We’ve yet to see the impacts of COVID-19 and economic challenges, but Santa Monica’s eviction moratorium and ongoing commitment to leverage state and federal funding for housing assistance will keep local residents from being forced onto the streets.”
In Los Angeles County, the number of homeless seniors, defined as people 62 years old and older, rose from 4,255 to 4,939 in the last year, but sheltered homeless seniors also rose from 976 to 1,351. The sharp spike raised new alarms, although the senior population has been a particular focus of Project Roomkey, which expanded rapidly to shelter homeless people in hotels or motels during the coronavirus outbreak — after the count was completed in late January.
Despite the rise in homelessness, LAHSA has counted more people who are now sheltered or housed, rather than living in street encampments or in their cars. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, LAHSA reported more than 6,000 people have been housed through programs including Project Roomkey. The goal is to move 15,000 people most vulnerable to the coronavirus into temporary housing through this and other programs and then find longer-term solutions.
Homeless people were also housed in the past year through Rapid Rehousing programs, permanent supportive housing and other methods, according to LAHSA.
The number of homeless people who said they suffered from substance abuse more than doubled this year, which LAHSA attributed to refined data, rather than a dramatic change in the population. Outreach efforts showed in 2019 that 7,264 homeless people reported they had problems with substance abuse, while 12,869 said they said serious mental health issues. In January, 15,023 homeless people said they had substance problems and 14,215 said they had serious mental health issues. Many suffer from both.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said LAHSA helped house more than 23,000 Angelenos in 2019, more than twice as many as the county was doing in 2014, but he said people are falling into homelessness at a rate that exceeds the number they can house.
The city of Los Angeles is proposing to spend $430 million on homelessness in the 2020-21 fiscal year, and with state and federal grants the total will be more than $679 million.
“Several years ago we were spending virtually nothing in the city budget on homelessness, relying just on some dollars to come from the federal government, some services to come from the county,” Garcetti said.
The mayor said he sent a letter to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council to keep its emergency eviction moratorium in place longer than 90 days after the state’s emergency COVID-19 orders are lifted, to help prevent people from being suddenly evicted.
Another disturbing statistic included in the numbers showed that more than half of women living unsheltered have a history of domestic or sexual violence, according to the survey.
LAHSA reported 59% of the homeless people they surveyed said their plight was due to economic hardship, and two-thirds of unsheltered adults said they were homeless for the first time.
“The homeless count shows we’re lifting 207 people out of homelessness every day — 74 more daily than last year — a monumental achievement by any measure,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “The problem is, we’re being outpaced by 227 people falling into homelessness every day.
“We have an obligation to learn from this data, which makes clear the racial disparities that continue to define this crisis. We must also be resolute in strengthening our safety net in the areas of housing, employment, education and health care, which are essential to preventing many more people from becoming homeless. Now is the time to double down.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Gil Cedillo also stressed the need to focus on systemic racism.
“I will continue to contribute and exceed my fair share to help solve this housing and homeless crises, but until we address the structural and systemic drivers of increasing housing supply and access and economic injustice from all levels of government and people in leadership positions, we will continue to see our black and brown communities over represented in homelessness and economic hardship cited as the number one cause of homelessness,” Cedillo said. “Housing people is good, but preventing homelessness is our calling.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn called the latest homeless numbers “nothing short of tragic.”
“We may be moving more people off the street, but we are nowhere close to meeting the massive scale of this problem,” she said. “I am frustrated and I am worried about how many more people could fall into homelessness in the wake of this pandemic. I think it is time we rethink our strategies because the direction we are going is unacceptable.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said affordable housing supply is at the heart of the problem.
“For millions of people who live here, our housing market is simply unaffordable,” Kuehl said. “We need half a million affordable homes that simply don’t exist, and the COVID-19 pandemic now threatens to make the conditions that force low-income men, women, and families into homelessness even worse.”
Kuehl also urged Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators to move quickly to provide additional funding and allow local jurisdictions to expand rent control laws, while also pushing federal authorities to step in.
“The federal government must renew its commitment to working with state and local governments to assure that every American has a decent home. Not so long ago in our history, the federal government embraced that responsibility to our people,” Kuehl said. “There’s no reason, in the wealthiest country on the history of the planet, that we can’t do it again. Come November, we need to elect an administration that is prepared to truly serve all the people of this nation.”