The Results of This Year’s Homeless Count Are Grim—and They Don’t Take the Pandemic’s Impact into Account

More than 66,000 people lack permanent shelter, and Black Angelenos are a stunning percentage of the homeless population
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The region’s staggering homelessness crisis is worsening. Perhaps the only things more worrying than the increasing number of people living without shelter is that the latest annual double-digit increase both comes after massive financial investments seeking to stem homelessness, and that the rise represents the situation before the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic could be measured.

Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased 12.7 percent in the past year, from just under 59,000 to 66,433 individuals living without permanent shelter, according to the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, which was released this morning by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The increase in the city was 14.2 percent, to 41,209 individuals, up from about 36,000 last year.

The count was conducted over three nights in January, with LAHSA staff then crunching the numbers and conducting a demographic analysis. This marks the second consecutive annual double-digit jump. The 2019 count revealed a 12 percent rise in the county and a 16 percent hike in the city.

The rise in homelessness represents the situation before the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic could be measured.

“This year’s homeless count numbers are a reminder that the crisis is worsening, even as we continue to house more people at an unprecedented rate,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “The City has invested nearly $100 million in bridge housing over the last two years, and the statistics show these beds are making a difference—more of our homeless neighbors have roofs over their heads at night, instead of being left out on the street. But we all need to do more.”

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who with Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg co-chairs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Statewide Homelessness Task Force, said that, “Given the state of the economy and circumstances that compound systemic inequity, none of us are really surprised.”

City and county leaders have ramped up the response to homelessness in recent years, investing in everything from housing to outreach teams to mental health care. Voters have also reached into their pockets to address the crisis. City residents in November 2016 approved Proposition HHH, a property tax bond to set aside $1.2 billion to help build permanent supportive housing units. The following year county voters approved Measure H, a quarter-cent sales tax that generates about $355 million a year for homeless services.

In one way the investment is paying off. LAHSA said that 22,279 homeless individuals were placed in housing last year. However, that was offset by the 82,955 people who at some point fell into homelessness during the year. Approximately 53,000 people “self-resolved” their situation, according to LAHSA.

The net result, LAHSA found, is that while an average of 207 people escaped homelessness each day in L.A. County, another 227 became homeless.

“LAHSA does not like these numbers because we know firsthand that we have done so much to increase the effectiveness of our systems and bring tens of thousands of people inside,” said LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston. “This year’s results reinforce that our community must address the deep-rooted causes within larger safety net systems that stop people from falling into homelessness.”

While an average of 207 people escaped homelessness each day in L.A. County, another 227 became homeless.

Among the troubling findings is the number of Black Angelenos experiencing homelessness. Although African Americans comprise about 8 percent of the L.A. County population, they represent 33.7 percent of those living on the streets. The situation prompted LAHSA last year to issue a report on Black Homelessness, which declared that institutional racism is the main driver for the crisis.

The ethnic disparity is reflected in the new numbers. The Homeless Count found that Hispanic and Latino individuals represent 48.5 percent of the county population and make up 36 percent of those who are homeless. Whites, who account for 26.3 percent of county residents, represent 25.5 percent of the homeless population.

Although African Americans comprise about 8 percent of the L.A. County population, they represent 33.7 percent of those living on the streets.

Also alarming is a 45.7 percent rise in homeless families, from 8,799 individuals to 12,817 in the 2020 count. This includes 3,086 family members reported as unsheltered, up from 1,688 last year (LAHSA said new counting methodologies are part of the reason for the rise).

Other significant demographic spikes include senior citizens, whose ranks among the homeless population increased by 20 percent, from 5,231 to 6,290. The situation for transition-age youth, defined as people ages 18 to 24, is similar; the level rose 19 percent in a year, from 3,926 to 4,673, according to LAHSA.

Approximately two-thirds of those who are homeless in L.A. County are men, nearly one-third are women, and 1.3 percent identify as transgender, according to the Homeless Count. Thirty-five percent of the homeless population reported a history of domestic or other sexual violence.

Although there have long been suggestions that Los Angeles’ homeless population is heavily impacted by people relocating from other regions, the findings say that is not the case. The report found that 71 percent of homeless individuals have lived in the area for more than a decade, with only 10 percent arriving in the past year.

Los Angeles is not alone in Southern California in seeing the situation worsen. According to the report, homelessness in neighboring San Bernardino County grew by 19.9 percent, and the figure in Kern County is up by 18.8 percent. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the rise was 4.4 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.

The report found that 71 percent of homeless individuals have lived in the area for more than a decade, with only 10 percent arriving in the past year.

The climbing figures come even as the number of housing options increase. The LAHSA report states that 732 permanent supportive housing units opened last year, and another 2,360 are expected to come online in the next 12 months. It adds that 88 percent of those placed in permanent supportive housing in 2018 have not returned to the streets.

LAHSA also said that 6,010 homeless individuals have moved into temporary shelter since the COVID-19 crisis began, including more than 4,000 placed in hotels or motels through Project Roomkey, and 1,708 occupying cots in city Recreation and Parks shelters.

Yet the overall need for far more residential units is pronounced. The Homeless Count cites a California Housing Partnership study that found that L.A. County needs 509,000 new affordable housing units to meet demand.

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on homelessness could be stark. Although the city has instituted a moratorium on evictions for those whose incomes have been impacted by COVID-19, any unpaid rents will still ultimately need to be made up. There have been repeated warnings that the spike in unemployment claims will make this impossible in certain cases, leading to more people losing housing in the future.

L.A. County needs 509,000 new affordable housing units to meet demand.

Garcetti called for additional help from state and federal authorities. Ridley-Thomas stated the need for “fortifying our safety best in the areas of housing, healthcare and education, where failure has pushed many people into crushing poverty and onto our streets.”

The count found that 59 percent of those who are newly homeless cited economic hardship as the principal reason for losing housing. That was months before the coronavirus arrived in Los Angeles.


RELATED: A Count of L.A.’s Homeless Population Gets Underway Tonight


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