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Understanding LA's Homelessness Issues
Here’s everything you need to know about all things related to homelessness in the region.
A photo illustration including bold horizontal blocks and black vertical lines shows a tent encampment on a city street with the Los Angeles skyline at dusk in the background.
A sidewalk encampment lines San Pedro Street in Downtown Los Angeles at dusk.
(Photo illustration by Alborz Kamalizad / Photography by Ethan Ward / LAist)
(Photo illustration by Alborz Kamalizad / Photography by Ethan Ward / LAist)
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Something commonly mentioned when discussing homelessness is that it’s an overwhelming and complicated problem with no clear solution. News is dominated with headlines about anti-camping ordinances, the camera-ready actions of L.A.’s sheriff at an iconic beach, or a federal judge's ruling forcing the city to move everyone on Skid Row into housing by the fall. Angelenos have overwhelmingly voted for additional funding to address the crisis through various spending measures, but wonder why things don’t seem to be getting better.

Here’s an update on the state of homelessness in Los Angeles to get you up to speed, along with important context.

Why Language Matters

This post from the San Diego-based nonprofit Father Joe's Villages does a great job explaining why you should stop using terms such as “the homeless” or “homeless person.” The takeaway is, by calling someone homeless, you’re defining them by one characteristic: the fact that they are homeless. But people who are homeless are more — they are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, entrepreneurs, students, full-time workers — and the list goes on.

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Homeless is not who someone is; rather, it's their current circumstance. Think of who you were 10 years ago and describe yourself with one word. Does that word accurately describe who you are today? Probably not. Let’s be honest: there is a stigma around the word homeless that we should be working to dismantle.

Paths That Lead To Being Unhoused

People experience homelessness for many different reasons. They include, in part, poverty, lack of affordable housing, employment discrimination, substance abuse or mental health challenges, LGBTQ kids who are rejected by family, domestic violence, lack of familial ties, and kids who age out of foster care.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the lead agency in the Los Angeles Continuum of Care that coordinates housing and services for homeless families and individuals in L.A.County, the rise in homelessness here is a result of stagnant income, rising housing prices, lack of investment in mental health services, lack of tenant protections, and discriminatory land use. Another major factor is mass incarceration. LAHSA found that 60% of L.A.’s homeless population has cycled through the criminal justice system.

Members of the news media and Los Angeles Police Department officers crowd Skid Row as the police begin to do a sweep of the area in summer of 1987.
News media crowd Skid Row as the Los Angeles Police Department begin its sweep of the area on June 5, 1987.
(Dean Musgrove
Herald Examiner Collection/ Los Angeles Public Library)

What Does It Mean To Be Houseless?

Being houseless refers to an individual or family lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence. Individuals or families living in a hotel/motel or garage would also fall under the same category, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD also expanded the definition of homeless to include people fleeing domestic violence and having no other residence, or who lack support networks needed to get housing.

Homeless is not who someone is, rather, their current circumstance.

Someone can experience homelessness while sheltered (couch surfing, shelters, transitional housing) or unsheltered (cars, tents, out in the open).

For people living in shelters there are normally two options: congregate (imagine lots of beds in a shared room) or non-congregate (people in private rooms). LAHSA says most unsheltered people prefer non-congregate housing options.

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How Many People Are Unhoused in L.A. County?

There are currently at least 63,706 people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County, according to a count by LAHSA in 2020 — a 13% increase from 2019. (The 2021 count was cancelled due to COVID-19, but is scheduled to resume in 2022.) In the city of Los Angeles, LAHSA says there are 41,290 people experiencing homelessness. The numbers are an estimate of people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles. Advocates believe the numbers are higher.

If you’re wondering why homelessness is more visible, it’s partly because of COVID-19. At the onset of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people living outdoors should be allowed to shelter in place because forcing them to relocate could lead to disease spread. The CDC also advised shelters to decrease their capacity by 50% so residents could practice social distancing.

Although LAHSA couldn’t do an unsheltered count in 2021, the agency was able to do a sheltered count in January and found there were ​​17,225 people in interim or permanent shelter, which was about the same as the previous year. Black people represented 42.6% and Latinos represented 38.7% of the sheltered population.

LAHSA did a 2022 count of people experiencing homelessness, and the results of that count are expected by the end of summer, according to a LAHSA spokesperson.

Who Is Unhoused?

Image title: Characteristics of People Experiencing Homelessness. 6% are veterans, 38% are chronically homeless, 1% identify as transgender, 19% said they have a physical disability, 27% said they have a substance use disorder, 7% are fleeing intimate partner violence. Source: The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
(Infographic by Alborz Kamalizad
LAist )

Mental Health And Homelessness

LAHSA’s 2019 count estimated that 25% of people experiencing homelessness here have a serious mental illness. But after examining LAHSA's numbers for mental illness, an L.A. Times analysis found that it affected 51% of people living on the streets. The discrepancy could be because of a difference in interpreting the data.

LAHSA says it surveys people experiencing homelessness using HUD guidelines that keeps data uniform in what is known as the Continuum of Care across the nation. As part of the survey, people experiencing homelessness are asked two questions: If they’ve ever suffered from a mental health issue, and for how long. In order for it to meet HUD’s standards, the mental health issue has to be permanent or long-term.

So why are so many unhoused people struggling with mental health? And why do so many people with mental health issues end up unhoused?

According to a 2021 report by the UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy, it can be traced to the deinstitutionalization of mental health care that began, in part, after outcry about the inhumane conditions of state mental hospitals that were previously seen as the model of public mental health up until the mid-20th Century.

The L.A. County jail system became the de facto mental health institution and homeless shelter for mentally ill homeless people, forcing released inmates into a pattern that was difficult to escape.
— UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy

In 1967, California passed the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act, which gave authorities permission to take people into custody for 72-hour psychiatric holds if they were deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. According to the Luskin report, people suffering from mental health issues were “rotated in and out of hospitals” because it was the only place people could access emergency psychiatric care, since no adequate mental health structure was established.

The report goes on to say that because of a lack of funding up until the ‘90s, the mental health system didn’t provide aftercare or follow-up services for discharged patients or inmates struggling with their mental health, which meant more people transitioning into homelessness.

Fast forward to 2005 when several Los Angeles hospitals admitted they were discharging unhoused patients to the streets, in particular, onto Skid Row. Then-City Councilmember Eric Garcetti, along with some colleagues, wrote a letter to hospitals claiming they shouldn’t assume there was a support network on Skid Row to handle their patient dumping.

The Luskin report said the L.A. County jail system “became the de facto mental health institution and homeless shelter for mentally ill homeless people,” forcing released inmates into a “pattern that was difficult to escape” of moving between jail and the streets. The report went on to say the obvious: criminal records mean unhoused people now have barriers to employment, public housing and various government services, which “perpetuate the conditions that produce homelessness in the first place.”

In June 2021, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to close the Men’s Central Jail, saying they wanted to provide a “Care First, Jail’s Last” approach. The motion was authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis, who said in a statement that the board voted to close the facility, in part, to increase access to the county’s system of care in order to meet Angelenos’ health needs instead of relying on jails.

Men Are Overwhelmingly Unsheltered

Men are the majority of people experiencing homelessness. According to the Gerontology Program at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, reasons why men are prone to homelessness is because they are less likely than women to be married or caring for children, which means they are less likely to receive social services. Women also usually have fewer histories of substance abuse and are less likely to encounter the criminal justice system, according to the Washington University School of Medicine. That means they tend not to have felony convictions that can be a hindrance to them obtaining shelter.

Unhoused Deaths

In 2020, 1,390 people experiencing homelessness died in tents and alleys, under freeways, in cars and in hospitals.

Over 1,600 people died in 2021, setting a grim new record.

A study from the L.A. County Department of Public Health revealed that deaths among young unhoused people ages 18 to 29 more than doubled in two years. The report compared deaths among unhoused people from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 to the same time period a year prior.

Among the findings was that deaths among young ,unhoused people increased at a greater rate than their older counterparts. There were 175 deaths among unhoused people ages to 18 to 29 from April 2020 to March 2021, compared with 85 during the same time period from 2019 to 2020 — a 106% increase.

Deaths among Latinos experiencing homelessness increased by 69% since pre-pandemic, the largest increase among all unhoused populations, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

The overall number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness increased by 56%, from 1,271 to 1,988 between the two 12-month periods.

Drug overdose remained the leading cause of death among all unhoused people during both years, but there was a greater increase in overdose deaths among Latinos — 84%.

The Origins Of Skid Row

Historical context is important to understand the homelessness crisis, and that history is well-documented in the UCLA Luskin Center report, which informs much of the reporting in this section. Skid Row, located downtown, has been around since the 1880s and is considered the epicenter of the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles.

Starting in the late 19th Century, white migrant laborers traveled to Los Angeles by railroad looking for seasonal work. Skid Row is located near a former Southern Pacific Railroad depotat Fourth and Alameda streets.

Skid Row was originally dominated by poor white men who were drawn to the cheap apartments and residential motels. People who were unhoused built makeshift homes on undeveloped land, which quickly led to transient laborers being called a “serious menace to public welfare” and a threat to the values of middle-class homes. These transient workers were often thrown in jail for vagrancy, a fancy word for being poor and without a home.

By 1905, 98% of the city’s jail inmates were white, which led to the expansion of infrastructure that birthed three local jails. The city used police to deal with the unhoused and “precariously housed,” both deemed a threat to social order. White transient workers not in jail found housing among the city’s racially and ethnically diverse poor, but their substandard housing was subject to citation or torn down by the city, which cited their popularity as a threat to public health. By 1910, housing demand, rising land prices, and race and building restrictions were blamed for high rents.

The Great Depression increased the size of the houseless population by expanding it from the working poor to skilled white-collar workers. Unemployment peaked at 25% for white people in 1933; the rate for Black unemployment was double that.

In 1931, there were roughly 26,000 unhoused people in Los Angeles. The city’s response was to establish the Municipal Service Bureau for Homeless Men in Skid Row in 1928, and for women in 1933. The bureau would refer people to other organizations such as the Midnight Mission, established in 1914 in Skid Row, because there were no public shelters.

There was segregation for people who were unhoused. Black people were referred by the Municipal Service Bureau to places such as the Sojourner Truth Home or what was known as the Colored YMCA, which were Black-operated and funded. The Luskin report found that there were no city policies — other than welfare or community chest funds — to address employment and housing issues that made Black people vulnerable to homelessness. The policies that did exist targeted unemployed or underemployed white men who were detached from their nuclear family. Those white men were the primary target of homeless policy during the 1970s.

By 1976, city officials decided to “contain” Skid Row to the roughly 50 blocks known today, and relocated all soup kitchens and missions to within that zone. The containment plan included the “selective policing” of the perimeter by the Los Angeles Police Department to discourage Skid Row residents from moving beyond the neighborhood.

Skid Row Today

Up until the 1980s, Skid Row’s population was mostly older, single, white men (many who suffered from alcoholism), according to the Luskin report. But those days are long gone. Of the nearly 4,700 people experiencing homelessness on Skid Row in 2020, 59% identified as Black and 23% as Latino, according to LAHSA.

How Did That Happen?

The Luskin report says “the affordable housing crisis, rising unemployment rates, the lack of services for the mentally ill, and the deterioration of the social safety net over the 1970s contributed to what many have described as the ‘new homelessness’ of the 1980s.”

Those reasons, in addition to increased immigration from East Asia and Latin America since the 1970s, created competition for affordable apartments that were “long neglected” by real estate interests and local government, according to the report. Due to the lack of affordable housing, many Black and Latino communities had high increases in the number of non-related residents per household, and many merged separate households under a single roof.

Los Angeles’ history of redlining — discriminatory housing lending practices that emerged from Roosevelt’s New Deal — is also why Black people are overrepresented in the unhoused population. According to Jamie Tijerina’s The Legacy of Redlining in Los Angeles (totally worth your time), these lending habits were an important reason why racial segregation was preserved, and why intergenerational poverty and the wealth gap between white Americans and everyone else is so large.

The Luskin report found that African Americans and Latinos are the “overwhelming” majority of unhoused people in the region, and Black people have been “disproportionately represented among the Los Angeles homeless population and continue to be four times more likely to experience homelessness.”

Where Did All The Affordable Housing Go?

LASHA says the shortage of affordable housing options in Los Angeles is a result of decades of intentional policy choices to decrease housing capacity and exclude and marginalize people of color. This has led to Los Angeles now having the fewest number of housing units per adult of any major American city.

The Luskin report claims this was due to the city’s efforts to re-orient the region around the growing suburban population by building freeways that broke up mostly Black and Latino working-class neighborhoods, and was more important than building affordable housing.

Los Angeles now has the fewest number of housing units per adult of any major American city.
— Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

Airbnb, which launched in 2008, is reportedly responsible for pulling more than 11,000 housing units from the long-term rental market in 2014 alone. In 2018, the Los Angeles City Council adopted its Home-Sharing Ordinance, which was supposed to regulate the market. Councilmember Nithya Raman introduced a motion in August of this year to enforce the ordinance after discovering more than one-third of short-term rentals are operating illegally.

A 2021 report found that there is a lack of accountability in L.A.’s affordable housing programsleaving many renters on their own. The Housing Authority of Los Angeles (HACLA) is also having difficulty staffing.

Municipal Code 41.18: Anti-Camping

You’ve heard about the city of L.A.’s anti-camping ordinance that made headlines in July of this year. But the ordinance isn’t new.

During the mid-1950s, downtown business interests established the Community Redevelopment Agency, and a campaign to clean up Skid Row led to increased policing in the neighborhood, according to the Luskin report. This meant increased arrests for petty crimes followed by the city council ratifying Municipal Code 41.18(d) in 1968, which said “no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” According to the report, it was modified after several civil liberties lawsuits, but never went away.

In 2002, William Bratton, the former chief of police for the city of Los Angeles, began enforcing the ordinance. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, claiming that it was cruel and unusual punishment to ban sleeping on the streets or sidewalks if there weren’t enough shelter resources. While enforcement was on hold, Bratton in 2006 launched a “Safer Cities” initiative that brought more officers to Skid Row to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on crime.

By 2007, the ACLU reached a settlement in the case (Jones v. City of Los Angeles) that allowed people to sleep on city sidewalks overnight, according to the report, which added that banning activities such as sleeping in cars or sitting on sidewalks criminalizes poverty.

The new iteration of 41.18(d) approved by the city council in July bans sitting, sleeping and storing items on public property close to day care centers, parks, libraries, schools and other locations. Mark Ridley-Thomas, chair of the city council’s homelessness and poverty committee, told KPCC’s Larry Mantle on AirTalk that there is a misplaced emphasis on anti-camping. He added that the new ordinance makes camping an infraction and there will be no more incarceration for being homeless.

Ridley-Thomas told Mantle the focus will be on more street engagement to clear encampments and get people into housing. The city council will have to vote encampment-by-encampment to enforce the ordinance. The city’s chief legislative analyst said in a report that targeted street engagements are for encampments with 10 to 15 tents, 30 or more people, or that are deemed a public health or safety hazard.

Ridley-Thomas said in a statement that if there’s no street engagement strategy in place, unhoused residents will “shuffle” from one neighborhood to another.

The mayor, the LAPD and Council President Nury Martinez said in a joint statement the day 41.18 went into effect that outside of obstructions to the Americans with Disabilities Act, additional enforcement won’t occur until after the city council has voted on an outreach engagement process that will include an offer of housing or connection to services.

The L.A. City Council has unanimously voted to adopt the street engagement strategy, which gives each council district a minimum of three dedicated street engagement teams that will visit encampment sites and connect unhoused people to services. Ridley-Thomas said in a statement that instead of shuffling people experiencing homelessness from one neighborhood to another, the strategy will bring true change on the streets.

Read our series about how outreach efforts are handled in L.A. City Councilmembers O’Farrell and Koretz’s districts, Councilmember Kevin de León’s 14th district, and Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s district.

In 2022, L.A. City council members expanded the anti-camping laws to include any encampments within 500 ft of a school or daycare.

Many unhoused people refuse to take offers of shelter that are available. In a recent RAND Corp. survey, less than one-third of unhoused people who responded said they would move into congregate shelter options, such as temporary winter shelters or bridge homes, that offer less privacy.

Where Is The Money?

So what about the millions of dollars designated for services and programs to end homelessness?

According to the Luskin report, the best way to understand policies surrounding homelessness in Los Angeles over the past 40 years is to realize that nothing happened until it left the “containment” area of Skid Row and became more visible in other parts of the region. That’s what caused public opinion to gradually change after a poll found that “ending homelessness” was people’s highest priority. This led to some landmark changes in Los Angeles’ response to the problem.

Nothing happened until it left the containment area of Skid Row and became more visible in other parts of the region.
— UCLA Luskin Center for History and Policy

Proposition HHH is a $1.2 billion bond measure approved by voters in 2016. The proposition, in part, supports the development of 8,000-10,000 permanent supportive housing units within the city of Los Angeles over 10 years.

Measure H is a Los Angeles County sales tax to fund homeless services approved by voters in 2017. The measure raises $335 million annually for 10 years to, in part, coordinate outreach services such as street engagement and to subsidize housing costs. The pandemic wreaked havoc on funding for this measure and the county CEO projected a $71 million shortfall for this fiscal year.

In July, the county Board of Supervisors approved roughly $571 million in funding for homeless initiatives through July 2022, the bulk of which will support interim, permanent and rapid re-housing efforts. Nearly $455 million will come from funds raised through Measure H. The remaining funds come from federal stimulus money, state grants and other funding sources.

Project Roomkey is a joint effort by the state, county and city of Los Angeles and LAHSA that secured hotel and motel rooms for unhoused people to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The hotels and motels were rented by the county and the program was initially supposed to put 15,000 people in shelter, but fell short.

LAHSA said it was able to move 8,900 people into motel rooms, but the program is winding down. As of June, there were 16 locations serving 2,019 people, according to the Los Angeles County Emergency Operations Center. Most locations will be offline by the end of September. FEMA now reimburses up to 100% of money spent to rent the hotels/motels, but the city said the process is too slow to get their upfront money back.

Heidi Marston, former executive director of LAHSA, said during a presentation for the 2021 shelter count that although Project Roomkey is ramping down, everyone in the rooms will get an emergency housing voucher from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.

Project Homekey is a joint effort by Los Angeles County and the state to purchase and rehabilitate hotels and motels that will be converted to permanent housing for unhoused people. It builds on the temporary Project Roomkey program, and Los Angeles County currently receives roughly $78 million in funding from the state of California for this program.

LAHSA said during its 2021 shelter count presentation that Project Homekey has served more than 1,100 people.

The city controller released a Homelessness and Housing Hub that has data and resources from across the city, county, LAHSA, and other agencies across the region to track building and spending.

A Pending Eviction Crisis

In March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that banned landlords from evicting tenants for not paying rent, and it prohibited law enforcement and courts from enforcing evictions because of COVID-19. If you couldn’t pay rent, you had to write to your landlord no more than seven days after the rent was due to let them know.

California received more than $5 billion in federal funding for rent relief, giving Los Angeles renters the ability to apply directly to the state if they needed assistance with paying back rent. That program has ended.

Although the city of Los Angeles has given renters increased protections from evictions and rent hikes, the city’s leaders are now exploring if the protections should be changed, continue or be phased out. The proposal doesn’t ask for immediate changes, but the city asked the city’s housing department to report back in 30 days on options for amending protections.

LAHSA says not only is there a demand for affordable housing for people experiencing homelessness, but also for low-income people on the verge of losing their housing because they can’t afford the rent. During its 2021 shelter count presentation, LAHSA said Los Angeles needs 509,000 affordable housing units.

The Luskin report says the same way the Great Depression led to a spike in the homeless population in Los Angeles in the 1930s, the COVID-19 pandemic will also increase the number of people who fall into homelessness.

How Can I Help?

Ending homelessness isn’t an issue one agency can solve. Here’s how you can help:

  • If you rent, ask your landlord if they accept housing vouchers from unhoused people. LAHSA’s former executive director, Heidi Marston, said they were seeing a lack of willingness from many landlords to work with unhoused people who have vouchers. Because there is already a lack of affordable housing, this makes it harder for people to find units, but Marston said it’s also because landlords have a “fear of the unknown.”
  • Offer safe parking spaces for people living in their cars or RVs.
  • Start attending your local neighborhood council meetings to find out if they are acting as a barrier to housing or interim shelters being built.
  • Volunteer at a local shelter or find another way to volunteer.