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Homeless population increases 12% in L.A. County

LOS ANGELES — Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by 12% over the past year to reach an estimated 58,936 people, according to figures released June 4, with the region’s housing costs outpacing wages and forcing people onto the streets faster than authorities can find them shelter.

According to data released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, nearly three-quarters of homeless people are living in cars, tents, makeshift shelters or on the streets without any apparent cover from the elements.

“We have the largest unsheltered population in the nation and one of the largest homeless counts across America,” said Peter Lynn, director of the authority. “Only New York has more people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

The city of Los Angeles saw a 16% increase in its homelessness numbers.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who chairs the county board, said she anticipated the rise given the increasing number of homeless encampments but called the figures “very disappointing, very troubling, very sad,” particularly after a 4% drop in the numbers last year.

Though the number of chronically homeless individuals increased by 17%, demographers and statisticians responsible for the count said they believe the real issue is the influx of newly homeless people.

Phil Ansell, who runs the county’s Homeless Initiative, said it may seem counterintuitive, but “a booming economy can actually lead to an increase in homelessness.”

He said that in a growing economy, rental rates have outpaced wages, particularly for people living at the margins and earning minimum wage. A minimum-wage employee would have to work 79 hours a week at $13.25 per hour to afford the rent in an average one-bedroom apartment, according to the homeless services authority.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti echoed that sentiment, calling the increase in homelessness “heartbreaking.”

“These results remind us of a difficult truth: skyrocketing rents statewide and federal disinvestment in affordable housing, combined with an epidemic of untreated trauma and mental illness, is pushing people into homelessness faster than they can be lifted out,” he said.

The numbers are up despite tens of thousands of people who have moved off the streets and into permanent housing. In the last year alone, the county has helped 21,631 people find permanent homes while another 27,080 who were homeless at some point during the year were able to lift themselves out of homelessness, according to the data.

The number of homeless veterans was roughly flat year-over-year, but there were 7% more homeless senior citizens — after a meaningful decrease last year — and demographers saw a 24% jump in homeless youth. Researchers from USC who worked on the count said they believe improved methodologies were responsible for part of the increase in young adults.

Though people suffering from severe mental illness or with substance-abuse problems are among the most visible members of the homeless community, they make up just 29% of the total homeless population.

Black Angelenos are four times more likely to end up homeless, a finding consistent with data from earlier counts that Lynn attributed to “deep institutional racism in the culture.”

While the number of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless was up, most homeless families are in shelters or other bridge housing, according to the homeless services authority.

Economic hardship was the number one reason cited by newly homeless individuals for their plight. The second most common trigger was a lack of a support network and a personal crisis like a divorce. And 5% of those represented in the overall count said they were fleeing domestic violence.

The county has more than doubled its capacity to house people over the last five years, in part due to voter’s 2017 approval of a quarter-cent sales tax increase under Measure H in 2017. In 2016, voters in the city of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, which authorized a $1.2 billion bond to build about 10,000 units of supportive housing.

But only 1,397 units are on track to be available in fiscal year 2019-20, according to the authority.

Hahn noted that a study by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corporation estimates that the county needs more than 500,000 affordable units to bring housing supply in line with demand from low-income residents.

Even at the rate of 10,000 units annually, “that’s 50 years before we will be able to build the number of affordable units we need,” Hahn said.

And those units cost an average of $450,000 to $500,000 to build, Hahn said, calling the number “staggering.”

County officials have backed a bill to speed conversions of motels into supportive housing units and is considering housing homeless veterans at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall downtown, among other local efforts to increase the amount of shelter space, bridge housing and permanent supportive housing units as quickly as possible.

The county also has put a 3% cap on rental increases in unincorporated areas where they have that authority. However, California voters rejected a 2018 proposal to give local governments more latitude to enact rent controls.

Ansell said the state can take action immediately on three key issue that could help alleviate the problem, including pending legislation prohibiting rent gouging, evictions without cause and discrimination against renters with housing subsidies.

Los Angeles County officials said they are adding strategies geared at combating other economic factors. When the Board of Supervisors approved $460 million in 2019-20 Measure H spending on homelessness three weeks ago, it focused on finding ways to offset rising rental rates and to provide opportunities for steady employment through an employment task force and jobs training program.

But capacity constraints mean it will be some time before tent camps disappear and fewer people are forced to live in their cars.

“We have a long-term challenge ahead of us,” Lynn said.

He urged all Angelenos to join the United Way’s Everyone In campaign at www.everyoneinla.org and to advocate for policy changes and volunteer to help homeless individuals in their community. More information can be found at www.lahsa.org.