‘It is heartbreaking’: LA County’s homeless population grows 12 percent

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In spite of ramped up efforts across Los Angeles County to combat homelessness, the number of people living without permanent shelter jumped 12 percent this year.

That’s according to the results of an annual count conducted in January, which the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority announced this morning.

The agency estimates that at the start of the year, 58,936 county residents were experiencing homelessness—up from 52,765 in 2018.

Director Peter Lynn said today that even that total captures only those without housing on a given night. He says that more than 100,000 people were likely unhoused at some point in the year prior.

“It is heartbreaking on a personal level,” says Elise Buik, president of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which has been a strong advocate for greater investment in homeless services.

“We are putting more dollars and resources into units [of affordable housing], and my hope is that as they come online, we will start to make a dent in these numbers,” she tells Curbed.

Service providers and local officials are struggling to explain the alarming results of this year’s count, which follows a slight drop in homelessness seen in 2018.

Lynn suggested Tuesday that a booming economy may be leaving behind some of the region’s lowest paid workers.

“If you want to understand homelessness, you have to think about the poorest in our community,” Lynn told reporters. “Minimum wage has moved much more slowly than rents. Those folks are under tremendous pressure.”

In the city of Los Angeles, the increase is even more dramatic—the population grew 16 percent since last year. LAHSA calculates that 36,300 people are now experiencing homelessness within city limits.

Throughout the LA region, roughly 75 percent of those experiencing homelessness—44,215 people—lack shelter and are relegated to sleeping in vehicles, makeshift encampments, and on streets and sidewalks.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday that the discouraging results of this year’s count haven’t weakened the resolve of local officials to address the growing crisis.

“We cannot let a set of difficult numbers discourage us, or weaken our resolve,” he said in a statement. “And I know that, if we keep working together, believing in one another, and caring for people in desperate situations, we will end homelessness in this city.”

The spike in homelessness is not unique to Los Angeles. Across Southern California, counts undertaken this year have revealed dramatic increases in the number of people without permanent housing: 22 percent in Riverside County, 23 percent in San Bernardino County, 28 percent in Ventura County, and 43 percent in Orange County.

Lynn said Tuesday that without programs in place at the city and county level, LA’s numbers would have been much worse.

According to LAHSA, nearly 22,000 people were placed into housing through local initiatives last year, a 23 percent increase from a year earlier.

That progress has been outweighed by the number of people now becoming homeless. LAHSA surveys indicate that more than 60 percent of those without housing are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

“For us, if we’re able to house more people and the numbers still go up, there’s a real challenge in housing affordability,” said Lynn.

In 2016, city of Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond measure to finance 10,000 units of affordable housing with on-site services for homeless residents with disabling conditions.

The first building funded by the initiative opened less than a week ago—though construction is now underway on 1,347 affordable units funded by the measure.

In early 2017, county voters passed Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund outreach, supportive services, and housing subsidies for residents experiencing homelessness.

Buik says it will take a while for these investments to fully pay off, but that she’s optimistic that the tides may soon turn.

“We didn’t get into this issue overnight and we won’t solve it overnight,” she says.

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