Homelessness Is Getting Worse In Southern California. Here's Why

A homeless man begs for change at the Western Avenue exit from the Santa Monica Freeway. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

THIS STORY IS PART OF HOW TO L.A., OUR ONGOING SERIES OF PRACTICAL GUIDES FOR DAY-TO-DAY LIVING IN LOS ANGELES.


On the last day of April, Peter Lynn went before the County Board of supervisors at their weekly meeting. Lynn, who heads the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), had been called there to give a status report on L.A.'s homeless relief programs, which are largely funded by Measure H. That's the quarter cent sales tax measure L.A. County voters passed in March of 2017.

That night was also the deadline for his agency to submit preliminary results from the 2019 Los Angeles Homeless Count to the federal government.

But Lynn did not address head on what those numbers showed. And neither did anyone else. They won't be officially released until the end of this month. Already, though, there have been plenty of hints that the news won't be good.

"Regardless of the direction of the count, there are tens of thousands of Angelenos who are experiencing homelessness, and that is far too many," Lynn told the supervisors and those gathered in April. "But for the resources that this body acquired and got the voters to put on the table with Measure H, and the resources we've deployed to lift people out of homelessness, this situation would be far worse."

It's a startling proposition — that despite a growing operation to end homelessness, funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer approved money each year, things aren't getting better.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti had this to say Thursday: "I'll tell you it's gone up. We don't have our final numbers, but I expect... at least some double digit increase."

"Homelessness is up everywhere as we're providing more solutions," Garcetti told KPCC/LAist reporter Emily Elena Dugdale. "If we want to get to the heart of the issue, we have to bring rents down. That comes from constructing new housing, trying to make sure rent gouging isn't occurring, and giving people legal assistance."


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The results of the 2019 homeless count in Los Angeles County will include a detailed demographic and geographic breakdown. It amounts to a comprehensive census of Los Angeles County's homeless people.

As Lynn pointed out to the supervisors, we do know the 2019 results in our neighboring counties show homelessness has jumped significantly.

In Orange County, volunteers counted 6,860 people in 2019, up 43% from 4,792 in 2017 when the last count was administered. In San Bernardino County, the number jumped 23% to 2,607 since 2018. In Riverside County, volunteers counted 2,811 homeless people in January, 22% more than last year. And in Ventura County, the official number increased by 28%, from 1,299 people to 1,669.

The number in Los Angeles County in 2018 was 52,765.

A CRITICAL JUNCTURE

Ruth Schwartz, who heads the homeless relief and policy development organization Shelter Partnership, said Los Angeles is at a "critical juncture" in addressing the humanitarian crisis on our streets, and the overarching economic factors that created it.

Los Angeles voters have twice voted to raise their taxes to pay for homeless services and housing in the past three years.

"Because we passed those measures, we have to prove something. If the numbers don't take a downward spin, then it puts everything into question," she said. "Even if we are making progress on one end getting people off the street and into housing, other people are slipping out of housing. There are so many people in so many places where you used to not see them."

LAHSA and a small army of homeless service and housing providers are getting people off the street with the money voters approved. Between July 2017 and December 2018, the Los Angeles "continuum of care" moved more than 27,000 people into permanent housing — about 12,000 of those specifically with Measure H resources. The goal is to move 45,000 into permanent housing using Measure H resources by 2022.

A homeless man sleeps on a sidewalk in Los Angeles, California on March 10, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

SYSTEM CAN'T KEEP UP

The bottom line: Need far eclipses the amount of public and private aid available.

A recent estimate put the number of people falling into homelessness in Los Angeles County during any given month at at least 10,900 people. While most of those people are able to successfully re-house themselves without getting involved in the homeless case management system, many are not, and begin an episode of homelessness that lasts months or years.

Street homelessness is the end destination for a long and painful cascade through varying levels of housing insecurity. Dan Flaming, president of the nonprofit research outfit Economic Roundtable, has estimated that there are about 600,000 L.A. County residents in living situations where 90 percent or more of all their income gets spent on housing.

Flaming says those people might not be homeless, but remaining housed for them is extremely precarious. He also believes that there are hundreds of thousands of others in informal living situations, like staying with family or friends, who are not technically "homeless," but who don't have housing of their own. And even more people may be living in their vehicles than we know.

"There are gradations to this problem, and to reach the bottom is a pretty long fall," said Flaming. "From having it almost implausible that you're still housed paying almost all of your income on rent, to sleeping on the floor at a friend's house, to being dispossessed of housing and living in a car, to being on a sidewalk, in a shelter, and down on from there to being chronically homeless — that is, having homelessness not be just an episode in your life, but a chapter of your life, or the book of your life."

For her part, Schwartz thinks a key answer lies in regulating the rental housing market and beefing up tenant protections.

"More are people losing housing because, for the most part, it's an unregulated rental market. Where we're weak is on prevention. We need more resources on prevention and eviction protection," said Schwartz.

In most parts of Southern California, for example, it's legal for landlords to serve tenants with a 60-day notice to vacate, or to raise rent without limit.

"We need action at the state and local level to regulate the market because people are taking advantage of the tight market. You've got to shore up a lot of the things that are driving people into homelessness," she said.

Critics of tenant protections say they'll just stall construction of new housing units, which would be counterproductive to building California out of its housing shortage. Last November, a ballot measure that would have allowed cities to expand tenant protections failed at the polls by 18 points.

On the flip side, tenant protections like those Schwartz mentioned are happening in bits and spurts. The county of Los Angeles and the city of Inglewood and are moving on eviction protection and rent stabilization policies in their jurisdictions.

"From a social perspective, there has to be something that buffers the capitalistic economy we have, and the reality that people can't wake up one day [realizing they] have to move out in 60 days," said Inglewood Mayor James Butts in April.

At the state level, a proposal introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu to limit rent hikes to 5 percent in a year (plus CPI) and one by Oakland Assemblymember Rob Bonta to establish just cause eviction protection are both pending on the floor of the State Assembly.

HOUSING COSTS OUTPACE INCOME

At the core of the homelessness crisis here are housing costs that are rising much faster than incomes. Even people with moderately high incomes are feeling squeezed by today's tight housing market. The situation is much more urgent for millions of Southern Californians living in poverty.

Paavo Monkkonen, a professor of urban planning and public policy at UCLA who specializes in housing, sees this effect as a predictable result of restrictive land-use policies that have limited the construction of new homes to accommodate population growth.

"People talk about [housing] like it's a game of musical chairs, but I don't think that's really the right metaphor. Income differentials don't matter in a game of musical chairs, but they do in this one," Monkkonen said.

The effect is a bifurcated economy where housing costs are driving inequality between the rich and poor.

In April, Apartment List released a study looking at how much of someone's income is being taking up by housing costs, depending on how much they make. The study looked at housing costs between 2008 and 2017 and found that for people on the high end of the economy, their costs as a percentage of their income actually decreased because of relatively high gaines in personal income.

The same was not true at the other end of the economy. Though lower-end incomes also increased, they did not rise enough to offset ever-increasing prices in the housing market. For the very poor — those at the highest risk of homelessness — incomes decreased.

Monkkonen blames the rapid appreciation of housing costs on a limited supply of places for people to live, and an economy that continues generating relatively high-income jobs for the highly educated.

"We're building much less housing than we have at every other point in our history, in at least the last century or so," he said. "Given the economic boom that's occurring, you get situations where there are lots of new jobs being created that are fairly high paying. So people have incomes, but new housing isn't being added."

Those workers still need places to live, but the finite number of homes available in the job-rich parts of the region means they look to areas previously shunned by the affluent and educated. That drives gentrification and displacement as the economic profiles of neighborhoods change, and gives landlords in poorer parts of the city incentives to raise rents and kick out poor tenants.

At the same time, employment opportunities for those who aren't highly educated or born reasonably well-connected are extremely limited. The transition from a manufacturing economy and to a service and "knowledge" economy over the past several decades has left millions with limited economic opportunity.

MORE BAD NEWS

Simply said, reversing decades of economic restructuring produced by a globalized economy is beyond the ability of local authorities to do.

"For most people, the path out of the woods is by having a job," said Economic Roundtable's Flaming. "Employment needs to be part of this equation, not just housing. How do you get housing unless you have a job that gives you steady wage?"


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Having a steady wage, however, is no guarantee of housing. In L.A. County, a minimum wage earner would have to work 91 hours a week earn enough to afford a 1-bedroom apartment at the federally defined "fair market rent," according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

By the way, that "fair market rent" for a 1-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles County is $1,384 a month. The going market rate for a 1-bedroom here? About $2,300.