The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) announced last week that between 2018 and 2019 the county’s homeless population increased by 12 percent and the city’s increased by 16 percent despite massive government efforts and spending.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the numbers heartbreaking, and Nita Lelyveld, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, said many Angelenos heard the numbers and felt “a combination of anger and shame, both on a civic and a personal level.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires cities that receive certain grants to conduct a yearly “point in time count” of homeless people. Teams of volunteers search the streets, encampments, and shelters to categorize and count individuals. The resulting information is valuable though incomplete. Some homeless people, especially mothers with children, stay at a friend’s house or find hiding spots to stay off the streets.
Amid an unprecedented homelessness crisis in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, took office in January and set aside $1 billion in his revised budget for homeless services. While the numbers in Los Angeles were troubling, the statewide count showed an average increase of 35 percent in the homeless population. LAHSA hosted a conference call last week to address the concerns of citizens. Moderator Chris Ko, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, pointed to the statewide average, saying, “You see what the accomplishment 12 percent was for us.” Los Angeles is the least affordable housing market in the country, but had among the smallest increase in homelessness, he said, adding, “That is no accident.”
In 2017, Los Angeles voters approved Measure H, an increased sales tax to fund homeless services. Proponents promised the funds would help lift 45,000 out of homelessness in the next five years. Things seemed hopeful as the 2018 point-in-time count showed the first decrease in four years: The homeless count dropped by 4 percent. Through the effort of LAHSA and others, 21,631 homeless people received affordable or supportive housing last year—more than the city had housed in any prior year.
The problem was that an estimated 54,882 became homeless. Preventing people from becoming homeless must be part of any solution, LAHSA spokesman Sam Fox told me. According to LAHSA, one-third of Los Angeles households spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent, and the city would need more than 500,000 new affordable housing units to meet the needs of low-income renters. Fox said that Los Angeles must invest in services for those leaving foster care, hospitals, and the criminal justice system.
What is the solution for the 59,000 in the city who are already homeless? Los Angeles’ official philosophy is that homes end homelessness. “Looking outside our system, the most important change we need to make is to overcome resistance to siting and building new housing and shelters,” said Fox.
But WORLD Magazine reporter Sophia Lee, a Los Angeles resident who has chronicled homelessness in California for several years, said it’s not that simple. “Homelessness is made up of unique human beings with uniquely complex issues and stories,” she wrote. “You can give a dog a home, feed it, and walk it, and it will be happy. Not so with human beings, who come with trauma, personalities, flaws, longings, and eternal souls. Simply giving them a home won’t fix the many underlying issues of homelessness.”