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Homeless Count 2020: Depressing but Not Surprising Rise in Number of Homeless

Late last night, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) released the results from this January's homeless count in Los Angeles County. As expected, the numbers were bad: more Angelenos fell into homelessness than the county can place in temporary, bridge or permanent housing. Homelessness in Los Angeles County rose by 12.7% compared to the 2019 count to a total of 66,433 people. The count, taken in January by volunteers, does not take into account any changes since the sheltering orders and economic recession caused by COVID-19.

The count also showed that two-thirds of the unsheltered adults experiencing homelessness were homeless for the first time last year. 59% of the unhoused cited economic hardship as the cause.

But while the increased number of people experiencing homelessness is discouraging, county officials say that they would be worse without the increased support LAHSA has received in recent years.

“We have doubled the number of housing placements since the implementation of Measure H, we introduced Housing Central Command to speed up placements and, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we sheltered over 6,000 people in just a few months," said Heidi Marston, Executive Director of LAHSA.

"Our homeless services system is helping more people than ever, and it’s operating in better alignment with the city, county, and other agencies than ever before. And it’s not enough.

In 2016, voters passed two ballot measures H and HHH to fund the construction of different types of housing to combat the rising tide of homelessness. The first projects built with these funds were completed in 2018. Since then, the number of people experiencing homelessness has risen over 50% (from 41,290).

And while new housing projects are coming online, it's not enough to reduce the number of people living on the street, even if it is blunting the momentum. An estimated 82,955 people fell into homelessness during 2019 in L.A. County, which is 10,000 more people than the populations of Culver City and Beverly Hills combined.

But even as more and more people are falling into homelessness, many are finding their way out. According to LAHSA, an estimated 52,689 people “self-resolved” out of homelessness, meaning that they found a path to housing that was not placement into a government program. Another 22,769 were placed into permanent homes through the county's system. LAHSA breaks down the math this way: an average of 207 people exit homelessness every day, but another 227 people become homeless at the same time.

As if these raw numbers weren't depressing enough, many activists for the homeless see them as an undercount. In the weeks leading up to the count on January 22, the City of Los Angeles completed dozens of high profile "sweeps" at the request of local city councilmembers, deepening homelessness for hundreds as personal belongings, identification, and contact lists were destroyed. Sweeps can also depress count numbers as individuals experiencing homelessness are scattered instead of living in easier-to-count groups.

Organizations including Ground Game L.A. and KTown for All protested during sweeps - the most high-profile of which were in MacArthur Park and Koreatown - and pressured the mayor and other city leaders to end them (below).

More recently, sweeps have been halted or at least been sharply reduced, after the Centers for Disease Control stated that sweeps were likely to increase the spread of COVID-19.

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 10.34.45 AM

Marston points to two major causes for the increase in the total number of people experiencing homelessness: a lack of affordable housing and systemic racism that damages the chances for people of color to avoid falling into homelessness and find a path out if they do.

This year's count highlights that a Black person is four times as likely to experience homelessness as a white person.

LAHSA points to a December 2018 report from its Ad-Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness on actions the agency can and is taking. Some of those action items include :

    • Advance racially-equitable policies, programs, and funding across institutions, including LAHSA homeless service providers, and City and County agencies.
    • Enhance cross-system collaboration and partnerships to more effectively prevent and reduce the time spent in homelessness and improve housing retention and stability for Black people experiencing homelessness.
    • Expand capacity building and training opportunities to ensure service providers understand the impact of institutional racism and racial bias on Black people experiencing homelessness.
    • Target investments and funding enhancements to initiatives aimed at reducing disparities and ensuring sufficient funding for services and programs supporting Black people experiencing homelessness.

Of course the disease of racism infects many parts of our society, and there are things outside of LAHSA's control that impact the percent of Black people experiencing homelessness. The systemic problems that plague Black America in the modern day trace back generations. Extra barriers facing economically disadvantaged black Americans trying to stay housed or escape from homelessness include that blacks are more likely to face discrimination from lenders and renters, be trapped in a cycle of poverty, receive inadequate mental or physical healthcare and are more likely to be arrested, abused and face harsh sentences in our criminal justice system.

Any one of these factors can lead to increased homelessness for a population, but taken together, they are crushing for a population that makes up 13% of the American population and 40% of the national homeless population.

“This year’s results reinforce that our community must address the deep-rooted causes within larger safety net systems that stop people from falling into homelessness,” Marston continues. "...And it required us to dismantle the legacy of racism that still shapes our region’s vast inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity.”

LAHSA also points to the lack of affordable housing on Los Angeles County. Across the county, Homelessness starts rising when median rents in a region exceed 22% of median income, and rises even more sharply at 32%.

In Los Angeles, the median rent is 46.7% or nearly half of median income, and a recent report by the California Housing Partnership shows that over half-a-million new units of affordable housing would be needed to meet the need in L.A. County. Sadly, funding to meet that goal will have to come locally, as the federal government has retreated on its commitment to funding affordable housing in the Southern California region. Comparing 2017-2018 fiscal year to that from nine years earlier sees a 70% drop in federal aide.

Because the count was completed in January, the impacts of COVID-19 were not seen at the time. L.A. County helped shelter 6,010 more people since mid-March because of emergency COVID-19 funding. However, we don't know how many more people have fallen into homelessness during the pandemic. (4,056 through Project Roomkey, 1,708 in Rec. and Parks shelters, and 246 in trailers).

However, there's been no count of how many people have become homeless during the crisis. A longer story on the successes and limitations of Project Roomkey will be published on Streetsblog next week.

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