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L.A.’s Homeless Population Grew 13 Percent Since Last Year’s Count — and Is Likely Already Worse

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“‘Are our leaders capable of solving this problem?’ I think is a really valid question at this point.”

Blue, yellow, and grey tents line a sidewalk and abut a metal fence draped in pink and orange flowering vines. Power lines hang overhead. AFP via Getty Images

The number of people without homes in L.A. County now stands at 66,433, a 13 percent jump since last year’s count, according to new numbers released today by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

It’s the second year of double-digit increases in the homeless population for both the county and the city of Los Angeles, where the unhoused population is up 14 percent since 2019. Robin Petering, who runs a research and advocacy company that works with homeless organizations, responded with a breathless “Oh my God” and “Wow” when she was read the results over the phone.

“It’s disheartening,” she said upon hearing the numbers. “‘Are our leaders capable of solving this problem?’ I think is a really valid question at this point.”

Many frustrated Angelenos will have the same reaction. On the one hand, the numbers seem shocking because L.A. has invested so much to fix the problem over the past few years — namely $1.2 billion in voter-approved bonds for subsidized apartments and an emergency shelter program — only to have fallen even further behind. But the response to the crisis has not matched the scale of the problem. Heidi Marston, the head of the Homeless Services Authority, says “bolder” action and an additional $500 million is needed every year “over a long period of time.”

The surge continues to be fueled by high housing costs, low wages, and a severe shortage of subsidized apartments that people with low incomes can afford. Fifty-nine percent of those who were homeless for the first time in 2019 cited economic hardship. These issues disproportionately impact black Angelenos, who make up 34 percent of L.A. County’s homeless population — and die from COVID-19 at double the rate of white people — but comprise just 8 percent of the county’s overall population.

The newly released data is based on a point-in-time count conducted in January, before the novel coronavirus hit L.A., imperiling the economy and leaving nearly 600,000 people without work. The number of homeless people is probably higher now, even when you factor in that 6,010 people most at risk of dying from COVID-19 were rushed into shelters between March and May, which is also after the count was completed.

“Any projections that have been made say we’re due for a really high inflow into homelessness without significant intervention, and we haven’t seen a significant intervention,” Petering says. “We have some minor eviction protections, but I don’t think they were robust enough or even well advertised.”

One estimate, by Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty, is that nearly 30,000 Californians could end up homeless because of the economic devastation the pandemic has caused.

The Homeless Services Authority was able to place 22,767 people into housing last year; it’s an area in which the agency has made steady headway. The number of housing placements has more than doubled since 2014. “There has been progress,” says Robin Hughes, president of nonprofit housing developer Abode Communities. “We are housing more people and getting more people off the streets.”

But LAHSA hasn’t been able to keep up with the influx. The number of people who became homeless last year was 82,955, and two-thirds of unsheltered adults were homeless for the first time. “The vast majority are from L.A. County and fell into homelessness while in L.A.,” says Marston.

She says the agency will try to stop a “flood” of evictions brought on by the pandemic. But if L.A. is going to prevent more people from becoming homeless, the solution can’t only be to build additional affordable housing, as important as it is. The city and county need to transform foster care, health care, and criminal justice, systems that have unequally harmed black people.

“We can settle for nothing less than ending homelessness for those who experience it and stopping it before it begins for anyone else,” Marston says.