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LA Explained: Homelessness

L.A.'s Skid Row is home to one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the nation. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Homelessness has reached crisis levels in the region. The bad news: it's an overwhelming and complicated situation with no clear path to resolution. The good news: TBD.

Why does L.A. have so many homeless people? Here's some context.

THE BEGINNING

Homelessness isn't exactly new here — L.A.'s Skid Row has notoriously occupied a swath of Downtown Los Angeles for at least 150 years. The Union Rescue Mission, one of the largest organizations offering help to homeless in the country, opened in 1891.

HOW MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE IN L.A. COUNTY NOW?

The numbers have ballooned to about 54,000 people as of the last count. It's the second largest homeless population in the country after New York City.

A map of L.A. County shows the density of the homeless population based on a three day county conducted in January 2018. (LAHSA)

ARE THERE MORE??

Yes. These numbers are a snapshot. They're an estimate of how many people are homeless in an area on any given night. The number of people who cycle in and out of homelessness over the course of a year is much larger.

SO DOES THAT MEAN HOMELESSNESS IS THE WORST IN THE TWO BIGGEST U.S. CITIES?

No. Of course, raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Hawaii claims the highest per capita homelessness among states. Bottom line: Homelessness is an issue everywhere. But it's becoming a more pressing problem up and down the West Coast in particular.

WHAT DOES "HOMELESS" EVEN MEAN?

It depends on who you ask. Even the federal government has different definitions of homeless.

The official tally of homeless in any city goes with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition, which is basically, someone who lives in a homeless shelter or somewhere not fit for human habitation, like a car or tent.

The U.S. Department of Education — which counts homeless public school students — has a broader definition, including those who are living on other people's couches, in garages and motels, or generally lack a fixed, regular nighttime residence. (That tally is huge —63,000 public school students in L.A. County, as of 2017.)

Characteristics of L.A.'s Homeless Population

  • 31% Women
  • 30% Living in cars or RVs
  • 27% Chronic homeless
  • 18% Homeless for first time
  • 18% Living in tents/makeshift structures
  • 15% Living in families
  • 8% Live in Skid Row
  • 7% Veterans

SHELTERED VS. UNSHELTERED

This is an important distinction to make. L.A. stands out for its high number of homeless people who are "unsheltered"—meaning living in cars, tents, and out in the open. About 75 percent of L.A.'s homeless are unsheltered.

New York City has a bigger overall number of people who lack permanent homes, some 77,000. But far fewer are on the street — about 5 percent of the homeless population is unsheltered there.

That's because courts have determined the city must provide shelter beds for all.

That's why even though New York has more homeless people living in a smaller footprint, L.A.'s homeless population is much more visible.

HOMELESS PEOPLE ARE PROBABLY NOT WHO YOU THINK THEY ARE

There are a lot of assumptions floating around about why people are homeless and where L.A.'s homeless come from. The truth is, the homeless population in Los Angeles is incredibly diverse and there are many, often overlapping reasons that people end up on the streets.

Of those who become homeless, the majority pull themselves out, while some, for various reasons, can or do not.

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION

(LAHSA)

Among the most common misconceptions about L.A.'s homeless people is that they mostly wandered in from elsewhere. Yes, there are newcomers to L.A. who are already homeless or quickly become homeless once they arrive and discover the price of rent. But the overwhelming majority are either from L.A. or lived in a home for a significant period here before becoming homeless.

About 65 percent of those on the streets have lived here for 20 or more years, whereas about 10 percent have been here less than a year.

DRUGS AND PSYCHIATRIC CONDITIONS

Another thing that makes L.A.'s homeless population distinct is the relatively low prevalence of substance use disorders and serious mental illness. Though mental illness is a huge issue, less than a third (27 percent) of people who are homeless on any given night have a serious mental illness and 15 percent have a substance use disorder.

(Compare that to San Francisco, where 41 percent of homeless people report a substance abuse disorder and 39 percent report a mental health condition.)

THE HIGHEST POVERTY RATE IN THE STATE

Overwhelmingly, L.A.'s homeless population ends up on the streets for economic reasons — specifically, poverty and the high cost of housing.

You can see evidence of that in the number of people who become newly homeless each year.

L.A. housed over 18,000 people last year. But the homeless population decreased by only about 3 percent. Meanwhile, the number of people becoming homeless for the first time went up.

The common wisdom on why the homeless population is so large right now is that L.A. is becoming less affordable.

To that end, consider this: incomes of renters have declined about 3 percent since 2000; the cost of rent has increased 32 percent.

Even with the other issues that can factor into homelessness—mental illness, substance use, domestic violence, exiting foster care, lack of family ties and support network—poverty is the overwhelming factor.

When you factor in cost-of-living, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation and Los Angeles County has the highest poverty rate in the state.

Poverty is a key factor when mentally ill people end up on the streets, too. Many people struggle with mental illness or substance issues, but don't end up on the streets. Generally, it's only the poor. As with everything, there are exceptions, but not many.

SO WHAT IS L.A. DOING ABOUT IT?

Belongings of homeless people are stored in a warehouse after workers cleared encampments. in 2014. (Maya Sugarman / KPCC)

L.A.'s priority is to get people off the streets and into a permanent home as quickly as possible. That's known as a "housing first" philosophy. That said, there's a severe lack of affordable housing —the county has a shortage of over a half a million units to meet current low-income renter demand.

Building the kind of supportive housing that people with serious mental health or health issues require is also quite expensive—about $500,000 per unit, which L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn recently called "unsustainable."

So the county and city have invested in a swath of other programs designed to reduce homelessness, from eviction prevention services, to short-term rental subsidies, to outreach teams that sign eligible people up for social security, veterans, and disability benefits.

To fund the effort, the board put a ¼-cent sales tax on the March 2017 ballot, which voters passed. It's expected to raise about $355 million annually for ten years.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has also proposed building temporary homeless shelters in every council district in the city to help reduce encampments. In turn, homeless people in the vicinity of a shelter would not be allowed to camp out.

(That plan is already meeting with neighborhood opposition at the first proposed site in Koreatown.)

KPCC has also documented sanitation and safety issues with L.A.'s current shelter system, along with the fact that thousands of existing beds are not being used.

Effective shelters are also expensive to build and operate. New York City, which provides shelter, by law, for the vast majority of its homeless residents, spends over $2 billion a year operating that system—a figure that dwarfs L.A.'s overall homeless spending and reportedly has made it difficult for New York to invest in other types of programs.

HOW CAN I HELP?

Traditionally, community help for the homeless has focused on volunteering in soup kitchens, handing out food, etc. That kind of work is still highly valued, but there are many ways to get involved. Some ideas:

Local officials would love for more landlords to come forward and be willing to rent to someone who's coming off the streets (there are also financial incentives the county has for landlords who do so).

If you're a member of a church or community group that has a parking lot, you might consider creating a safe overnight parking space in your lot for homeless people or families who live in their vehicles. The City of L.A. and the county fund such programs, which are generally operated alongside service providers. But finding space has been an issue.

Probably more than anything, officials are hoping you will support the construction of affordable housing and/or homeless shelters in your own neighborhood. NIMBYism is a major obstacle to L.A.'s current plans to house the homeless. Generally, people support housing for homeless, but they don't want that housing in their own neighborhood.

Work for a social service organization that helps the homeless. There are over 1,000 open jobs in L.A. County right now with service providers that are looking for everything from case managers to social workers to drivers to cleaners.

For more info on how to get involved, check out the "Everyone In" campaign being run by the United Way. For a list of open jobs, visit the county's homeless initiative job site.


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