Tonight thousands of volunteers will begin an annual three-night count to determine how many people in Los Angeles are now experiencing homelessness.
It’s a number that’s been steadily rising for the last half-decade—though not through a total lack of effort on the part of elected leaders and community members. Ballot measures dedicating funds toward affordable housing construction and homeless outreach passed in 2016 and 2017. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched an emergency shelter program in 2018.
But it’s clear more work is needed. Last year, the number of people counted jumped 16 percent in the city of Los Angeles and 12 percent across LA County.
In interviews, service providers and those working on Los Angeles’s response to the homelessness crisis told Curbed that the current approach is working; it’s a matter of scaling the region’s response to meet the level of need.
Joey Weinert, senior manager of public affairs for the Midnight Mission, compares the work of homeless service organizations to “chipping away at a growing rock.”
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which coordinates the city and county response to homelessness and organizes the yearly count, nearly 49,000 residents who were homeless found housing in 2019. But over the same time period, almost 55,000 people became newly homeless.
Service providers say this discouraging statistic speaks to the need for more investment in a handful of key areas.
“There isn’t anyone who works in homelessness that will disagree that housing isn’t the most important need,” says John Maceri, CEO of The People Concern.
A 2019 report from the California Housing Partnership and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing calculates that Los Angeles County would need to add more than a half-million affordable units to meet demand from low-income renters. Many of those residents are a steep rent increase or a lost job away from homelessness.
Roughly one-quarter of Angelenos living without shelter in 2019 were experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to LAHSA. Of those, more than half said “economic hardship” caused them to lose housing.
Without more affordable residences available for Angelenos teetering on the brink of homelessness, says LAHSA interim executive director Heidi Marston, “we’re going to have a hard time catching up, even with all the resources in the world.”
In 2016, Los Angeles voters approved Measure HHH, which set aside $1.2 billion to subsidize construction of 10,000 units of permanent housing for homeless residents.
Service providers say that’s a good start, but much more is needed. Only one apartment complex funded by the measure has opened so far.
“We are housing people. We just need more units to really get it going,” says Haley Fuselier, who directs outreach efforts in West Los Angeles for People Assisting the Homeless. “If there’s 60,000 people homeless, that’s 60,000 people on a waiting list.”
Fuselier says the small number of available units makes getting people permanently housed a long and complex process. That’s particularly true when residents need a particular type of housing, or access to specific services.
“If someone needs senior living connected to medical care, but that’s not available, we try to get them something for now,” she says. “When [the housing they need] becomes available, we can move them into that.”
Fuselier says there’s no telling how long that will take.
“Today I received a call from someone desperate for housing,” she says. “It’s hard. You’re telling an 80-year-old woman they have to get on a waiting list.”
Connecting residents to financial support through federal housing vouchers has long been a key part of LA’s strategy for addressing homelessness. But those vouchers aren’t in unlimited supply.
Federal rental assistance can be awarded to individuals or be applied to entire buildings, allowing developers to offer units to low-income tenants and homeless residents. Maceri says those project-based vouchers are a key tool used by affordable housing developers.
“There are a lot of developers that have projects waiting to go, but without a subsidy they’re not going to be able to move forward,” he says.
With longterm rental assistance in short supply, service providers often turn to shorter-term subsidies available through Los Angeles’s Rapid Rehousing program. Aimed at getting newly homeless residents back into permanent shelter as quickly as possible, the program makes funds available for security deposits, move-in costs, and the first few months of rent.
Kris Freed, chief programs officer for Los Angeles Family Housing, says short-term rental assistance can make a big impact for families who need a little help getting back on their feet. But she points out that the program can offer diminishing returns in Los Angeles’s cutthroat rental market.
“Four years ago, units we moved people into might have been $1,400 per month. Now, they’re $1,900 per month,” Freed says. “We don’t want to put people in a unit that in six months they’re not going to be able to afford. We’re not doing them a favor by doing that.”
Shelter as a stopgap measure
Since Garcetti rolled out plans nearly two years ago for a network of temporary shelters, nine have opened and seven more are under construction.
Maceri says sites like these go a long way toward “alleviating human suffering in the short term.” He also points to safe parking sites (accessible to those living in vehicles) and mobile restrooms and showers as opportunities to keep people safe and healthy at times when they lack shelter.
“These are interventions that are a lot less expensive and can make a big impact while people are waiting for housing,” he says.
Eric Hubbard, director of development at Jovenes, agrees that local leaders should consider the immediate needs of homeless residents. But he says it’s important not to lose focus on longterm solutions.
“We’ve developed a whole infrastructure around getting people housed,” he says. “If the public demands that we just need to clean the streets and get everyone off of them, it wouldn’t produce results that would get people out of homelessness.”
Based in Boyle Heights, Jovenes focuses specifically on youth homelessness. Hubbard says that for young people in particular, the path to stable, permanent housing can be slow.
Service providers need “time to develop a trusting relationship” with young people, and to help them obtain the education and career resources they need to become self-sufficient, he explains. That can be a challenge without available longterm housing.
Marston says that as LAHSA coordinates efforts to house those living on streets and in shelters, the agency can no longer afford to ignore those who could become homeless in the future.
“There’s always been a little bit of prevention activity, but not to the level that we’re trying to scale up now,” she says.
Measure H, the countywide ballot measure combatting homelessness that voters approved in 2017, set aside $48 million over three years for homelessness prevention strategies, including a “problem solving” fund that can be used to pay for anything from emergency rental assistance to auto repairs necessary to keep someone employed.
The program is aimed at keeping those at risk of losing housing in their homes, and Fuselier says it’s being “well used” by outreach workers.
In a 2018 poll, 84 percent of residents said homelessness was a “very serious issue” affecting Los Angeles. Service providers say a key part of addressing the crisis is leveraging that level of public concern about the issue.
“I truly believe at this point that this is much larger than just a governmental issue,” says Freed. “This is a community problem affecting everyone, and as a community we need to be able to step up and support each other.”
She says people looking to help could consider opening up their own homes to those in need.
“There’s a lot of people who have empty bedrooms who could rent a room, and there’s a lot of people who they could be connected with—who don’t necessarily need to be part of the [homeless services] system but have simply fallen into the system because of their inability to afford rent,” Freed says.
Weinert says those without a room to spare could consider donating a bit of their time.
“We have daily volunteer opportunities for people to come and learn on the frontlines of this issue,” he says.
To Hubbard, the most important thing is that people are aware of work that’s already being done—and that it can take time.
“If we can spend more time educating people how the system is working, that will give them more of an understanding of why [people we work with] aren’t housed within the next week,” he says.