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LA’s homeless population is finally falling

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But 75 percent of homeless residents still don’t have shelter

Tents on Skid Row
According an annual count, undertaken in January, LA’s homeless population declined slightly over the past year.
Getty Images

The number of homeless residents across Los Angeles County has dropped to 53,195, new figures show.

That 3 percent dip since 2017 is the first decline in the countywide homeless population in four years. It’s an improvement made amid a massive influx in funding for new housing, shelters, and outreach efforts.

“While the reduction in our homeless population in the City and County of Los Angeles is modest at best, we are—at last—headed in the right direction,” said LA City Councilmember Jose Huizar, whose district encompasses the largest concentration of homeless residents in the county.

The new countywide figure was released Thursday by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which, with the help of thousands of volunteers, attempts to determine every year how many Angelenos experience homelessness on a given night.

It excludes Pasadena, Glendale, and Long Beach, which conduct their own counts. Even without those cities, the county’s homelessness population is massive—it’s higher than the total population of Palm Springs.

But it’s a slight improvement over last year, when over 55,000 residents were counted.

Homelessness has also declined within the city of Los Angeles. About 31,516 homeless residents were identified this year—down 5 percent from 33,138 in the updated 2017 count.

The report estimates that more than 9,000 people in Los Angeles County became homeless for the first time in the last year.

The overall decrease in the countywide homeless population may not be obvious to those who live and work in Los Angeles. The report counts homeless residents who have access to shelter and those who don’t, and it found the number of people living on streets and sidewalks—without shelter—has barely budged. There were 39,826 unsheltered residents counted this year, just 256 fewer people than last year.

There are fewer people who are living without shelter, but there’s a high number of tents, makeshift shelters, and vehicles being used as dwellings, up 5 percent since last year. Those living outside of shelters still make up 75 percent of the total homeless population.

Longtime homeless advocate Alice Callaghan, founder of Las Familias del Pueblo, tells Curbed the results of the count don’t make much difference for those dealing with the city’s homelessness crisis on the ground level.

The “real number” of homeless residents in LA is “too many,” Callaghan says, “and we already know that.”

Homelessness In Los Angeles Jumps 20 Percent From 2016 Numbers Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, 16,519 people were placed into housing in 2017—up from less than 11,000 two years earlier. That number could continue to grow as voter-approved ballot measures fund new housing and services in the area.

Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond measure to finance construction of supportive housing geared toward homeless residents, hasn’t produced a completed project yet (though more than a dozen are on the way).

Meanwhile, Measure H, which voters approved in March 2017, will fund homeless services, outreach, and rental assistance. It’s expected to raise more than $350 million annually, but funds have only been available since July.

Elise Buik, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, says government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses are working better together and that has contributed to significant declines in homelessness among veterans and those who are chronically homeless (meaning that they have been homeless for a year or more and suffer from a disabling condition).

“That’s where we’ve focused, and we know what we’re doing is working,” says Buik.

The report points to the region's severe shortage of affordable housing as an underlying cause of homelessness for many residents. In a recent analysis of LA County's housing needs, the California Housing Partnership Corporation found that more than 565,000 new affordable units would be needed to meet demand in Los Angeles.

Buik argues that addressing the region’s affordability crisis requires different solutions than the ones being employed to house those who have been homeless for years and are often in need of specific services like counseling and healthcare.

“On chronic homelessness, we have a solution that works and that we’re implementing,” says Buik. “When you talk about the macroeconomics of affordable housing, that’s more complicated.”

Buik says LA could see further declines in homelessness if residents, organizations, and elected officials continue to coordinate efforts and focus on practical solutions.

“We all want to see fewer people sleeping on our sidewalks,” says Buik.