LA County Homelessness Is Getting Worse. Here Are The Numbers

A tent encampment in the shadow of an under-construction apartment building in Hollywood, CA. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

The news is bad. The number of people living in Los Angeles County without a permanent home is up 12% across the board. The rise in the City of Los Angeles was 16%, though some city council districts saw much higher increases than others.

That comes a year after local leaders touted a slight decrease in the 2018 annual homeless count and despite massive investments by taxpayers to help solve what has become a regional crisis.

So what's going on?

Here's the bottom line: The available services are not enough to keep pace with the number of people falling into homelessness.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) estimates that in the time between their count in 2018 and count in 2019, nearly 55,000 people living in Los Angeles County became newly homeless. During the same time, LAHSA and other public programs housed 21,631 people, and another 27,080 people managed to end their homelessness on their own without public intervention.

But there are simply too many people for the system to keep up.

All of this is despite a growing operation to end homelessness in Los Angeles County. Voters approved Measure H in March of 2017, and by now the quarter cent sales tax is raising almost $400 million annually for a case management system that, in 2018, moved more than 20,000 people from the street into housing.

WHAT THE NEW COUNT FOUND

A three-day annual survey of homeless people living in shelters, in vehicles, and on the street found that nearly 59,000 people fall asleep in L.A. County on any given night without a permanent home. Last year the number was just short of 53,000 people.

The core driver of the increase, experts say, is a protracted housing affordability crisis that drives regional inequality. Where income in richer households is increasing enough to keep up with housing costs, the same is not true for poor households who have less disposable income to start with.

And that's reflected in the latest homeless count, which found people being forced into the street at a quickening pace. Why? Wages have simply not kept up with the rising cost of living. According to LAHSA, about a quarter of the people on the street today became homeless for the first time in their lives in the past year, and about half of those people cite economic hardship as the primary cause.

"There are an enormous number of people who are essentially hanging on by their fingertips," said Peter Lynn, LAHSA's executive director.

Approximately one-third of all the renting households in Los Angeles and Orange counties pay more than half of their income on housing, according to Harvard's Joint Center For Housing Studies. In L.A. County, about 600,000 people — 6% of the county's population — live in households where 90% of all income goes to housing, according to the Economic Round Table.

For that matter, the percentage increase in Los Angeles County was actually less than most other urban counties in California. (For reference, most counties count every other year, and the most recent numbers are from 2017; Los Angeles County's overall increase since 2017 is 7%, since the county saw that small decrease last year.)

Here's a breakdown of those increases between 2017 and 2019;

The only major urban California county to show a decrease was San Diego, where homelessness reportedly dropped, though it should be noted that the county changed its methodology.

WHO ARE OUR HOMELESS NEIGHBORS?

They are — by and large — longtime Southern California residents. That hasn't changed, even though politicians and others often assert that Southern California's homelessness crisis is caused by homeless people coming from somewhere else.

Three-quarters of homeless people report they were living here when they lost their home, and more than two-thirds have lived in L.A. County for more than ten years.

At the same time, about 19% of the people LAHSA surveyed became homeless in a different state — a percentage that has remained pretty steady in the last few years. So, yes, some of the homeless population came here from other places, but most people on our streets are longtime locals.

Homelessness is a national problem that's increasingly visible in most American cities, though most severe on the West Coast.

Another common assumption is that most people on the street ended up there due to substance abuse or mental health issues. Demographers estimate that about 71% of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County are neither mentally ill, nor coping with substance abuse problem. LAHSA says about 29% do report those issues — although it's worth noting that researchers have found the stress of being homeless can trigger problems with addiction and mental health.

Last year, officials were caught off guard by a jump in senior homelessness, which was up again but not as steeply. The survey found a 7% increase in people age 62 or older, This year, the count found a 24% rise in homeless youth, defined as people under 25.

The gender breakdown is similar to the previous years. About two-thirds of all those on the street are male, just under one-third are female, and about 2% ID as transgender or gender non-conforming.

Racially, homelessness affects people from all races, but disproportionately affects black people. Though black people make up about 9% of L.A. County's total population, black people are 33% of the county's homeless population. Latinos represent about half of the county's overall population, and 36% of those on the street. White people, about 28% of the county's population, make up about 25% of the homeless population. About 1% of L.A. County's homeless population are of Asian descent, and about 3% identify as another race or multi-ethnic.

A person makes his way out of his tent among a row of tents along a sidewalk in downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT IT?

There are thousands of people in housing today who wouldn't have been if not for an intervention by Los Angeles' sprawling network of service organizations and public agencies.

At the same time, the larger economic factors that drive people into homelessness are proving very challenging. Providing formerly homeless people with rental subsidy vouchers, for example, is an oft-used strategy, but those people are competing with everybody else for a finite number of housing units.

In 2018, only about 53% of those lucky enough to get a Section 8 rental voucher were successful in finding a rental unit before the voucher expired, according to the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. The success rate for the HUD-VASH program, a federally funded subsidy for veterans, was lower — only 45%. The low success rates have authorities at the local and state level moving to outlaw voucher discrimination.

Building new below-market rental buildings for folks with low-incomes is increasing, just not fast enough. The rate at which affordable units are being built barely offsets the number of older buildings where affordability requirements are expiring. Overall, the California Housing Partnership estimates that Los Angeles County is short more than 516,000 affordable units, available to people who earn less than the region's average income.

The expansion of a low-barrier shelter system is also moving slowly, beleaguered by high construction costs and challenges deciding where to physically site the facilities, as LAist reported earlier this week.

Altogether, it's discouraging news.

"Either we step up and deal with homelessness, or we will be knocked down by it," said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "Everyone has to get in this on terms that make sense so we can arrest this crisis and hopefully turn things in a more positive direction. Were it not for Measure H, the unfortunate news we are receiving would have been much worse."

L.A. County voters overwhelmingly approved Measure H by almost a 70-30 margin.

There is space for individuals to get involved. That can involve simply talking to your own homeless neighbors, joining a neighborhood homeless coalition, or volunteering at a service organization in your own part of Southern California.

At the same time, without addressing the systemic causes of homelessness — the deep economic precariousness shared by a huge portion of American public — the problem is unlikely going to be resolved. According to research by Jennifer Wolch, now the dean of U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design, our modern crisis has its roots in the politics of the 1970s and 1980s.

"The persistence of homelessness over 40 years is unbelievably depressing. It is not that we don't understand or have evidence about why people become homeless, or can't find solutions," said Wolch. "The stinginess of today's welfare programs are rooted in the notion that if people are not under some form of surveillance, they will misuse what many people consider 'public "charity' — rather than restitution for the damage done by market economies."

READ THE PRESENTATION: