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Stop Looking Outside LA To Explain Rising Homelessness. It's Still A 'Homegrown Crisis'

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On any given night, nearly 59,000 people in Los Angeles County are homeless.

The vast majority of those people used to rent or own homes here.

But local homeless officials are still having trouble shaking the perception that the problem is mainly due to people who move to Los Angeles after falling into homelessness somewhere else. The numbers show the exact opposite is true.

"It is a largely homegrown crisis," said Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) executive director Peter Lynn.

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He said there's no evidence to back up the idea that better homeless services are luring people from other parts of the country.

The latest count found a 12% increase in L.A. County homelessness and a 16% increase in the city of Los Angeles. In search of an explanation for the surge, some local officials have at times pointed outside Los Angeles.

"I think we have to look at where folks are coming from," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, speaking at a press conference last month before the homeless count results were released.

He noted that according to this year's numbers, 65% of people last lived in L.A. County before falling into homelessness. That's down from 75% in 2018.

"Which means people are coming to Los Angeles from elsewhere," Garcetti said at the time.

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After the results were released publicly, Garcetti told LAist he wants to see more research on why those numbers are changing.

"There's definitely some inflow," he said. "It could be regionally, from next door neighboring counties. It could be from out of state. But nobody should mishear: two thirds of folks that are living on the street last were housed here."

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LAHSA executive director Peter Lynn presents the results of L.A. County's 2019 homeless count, June 4, 2019. (David Wagner / KPCC)

Homeless officials largely blame the harsh economic realities of life in Los Angeles for pushing more people onto the streets.

Local wages aren't keeping up with rents. Someone earning the $13.25 minimum wage would need to work 79 hours a week to afford a one-bedroom apartment. More than 720,000 L.A. households are spending more than half their income on rent, and the region is 516,946 units of affordable housing short of meeting the needs of low-income renters.

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Under those circumstances, many in L.A. simply can't recover from losing a job or getting evicted.

"A booming economy can actually lead to an increase in homelessness," said Phil Ansell, director of L.A. County's Homeless Initiative.

This year, 18.8% of people in the count lived out of state before becoming homeless. That's up from 13% in 2018, but within a few percentage points of results from previous years.

More than three quarters said they've lived in Los Angeles County for at least five years -- a result that's also mostly in line with previous years.

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This year's homeless count continues to show that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. have lived in L.A. for 10 years or more. (LAHSA )
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LAHSA's Peter Lynn said many people falling into homelessness outside of L.A. may actually have long-standing roots here.

"People move around," he said. "If you, for example, move to a lower-cost county -- you move to San Bernardino -- and run into a housing crisis, you might well come back."

Chris Ko, director of homeless initiatives for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said many people who own homes in L.A. are transplants themselves. They may be projecting their own reasons for moving to L.A. onto the homeless -- and reaching false conclusions.

"I think a lot of housed people come here for the sunshine. They come for the weather. And so we assume that everyone else does as well," Ko said. "It's actually less true for our unhoused neighbors than it is for us."