59,000 sleep on the streets, in cars and in shelters in Greater Los Angeles

By Gary Walker

A double-digit increase in the number of homeless people sleeping in encampments or vehicles in Greater Los Angeles — and this despite hundreds of millions of dollars of government spending to combat homelessness — is largely the result of the region’s housing affordability crisis, according to the head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

LAHSA Executive Director Peter Flynn presented the grim results of the annual homeless count on Tuesday to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

The optimism surrounding the 3% dip in homelessness between the January 2017 and January 2018 count dissolved into a bit of shock as Flynn announced a 12% increase in homelessness countywide and 16% increase in the city of Los Angeles alone.

That means homelessness increased in Los Angeles County from 52,765 people last year to 58,936 people this year, and from 31,516 to 36,330 within the city of Los Angeles.

Neighborhood-level stats were not immediately available, but the Westside regional service planning area saw a 19% jump, from 4,401 to 5,223. The number of homeless in L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin’s Council District 11 increased 12% from 2,033 to 2,284, while eight other districts saw increases exceeding 20%.

“We live in one of the most rent-burdened states in the United States. Economic factors are driving increases in homelessness,” Lynn told county leaders, who appeared to be taken aback by the numbers.

Homelessness spiked despite a record number of housing placements, according to Lynn’s presentation. While agencies placed more than 21,600 people in housing last year and prevented some 5,600 from becoming homeless, and as many as 27,000 people found their way into other housing options, an estimated 54,800 people entered homelessness during 2018.

County supervisors said state legislators need to do more to help cities facilitate the creation of affordable housing.

“They really haven’t given us much help,” said Supervisor Shelia Kuehl, whose district includes Venice and Santa Monica.

“This report makes it clear that the homeless rate is growing faster than we are able to house people, but it does not change this board’s commitment to eradicating homelessness,” said L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey.

Critics of local government say county and city agencies have responded to the housing crisis too slowly and without much creative thinking, focusing on expensive housing construction that’s taking too long to build.

“It’s like a slow train to nowhere. We’re not getting the kind of outside-the-box thinking we need to solve this crisis, and instead it’s getting worse,” said Ileana Wachtel, communications director for the Coalition to Preserve Los Angeles. The coalition is affiliated with Housing is a Human Right through the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which sponsored last year’s failed state ballot measure to allow cities to expand rent control protections.

“We’ve had more than two years since [the $1.2 billion housing bond] Proposition HHH passed, but only one of those projects has come online, and housing units are costing, on the average, $500,000 or more to build. The 10,000 units of housing we were promised is now being reduced to around 6,000 units,” Wachtel said. “The city is letting developers build luxury housing and losing affordable, rent-stabilized housing in the process.”

Others see the homeless count as evidence that local, state and national leaders must simply do more.

“The strategies on the table are the right ones … [and] this means that we must address rising rents both citywide and statewide, and continue creation of transitional, supportive and permanent housing,” said Del Rey Neighborhood Council President-elect Matt Wersinger.

“If anything, this proves we’re still not doing enough,” said Will Hawkins, founder of the homelessness nonprofit Chamber of Hope and former head of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s committee on homelessness. “Imagine what these numbers would be if we weren’t making the effort.”

Managing editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.