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Homeless population in LA County jumps 23 percent; officials blame rising rents

A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.
Fredric J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
A woman pushes her walker past tents housing the homeless in Los Angeles, California on February 9, 2016.

The number of homeless in Los Angeles County has continued to rise, jumping an astonishing 23 percent this past year, a clear sign that major challenges lie ahead as the region embarks on its most comprehensive effort yet to tackle the crisis. 

The results of January 2017’s annual homeless census, released Wednesday, tallied nearly 58,000 homeless in the county. That number is particularly remarkable because L.A. housed a record number of formerly homeless last year. Within the county, 14,214 people moved into permanent housing from the streets and shelters, a 61 percent rise over 2014.

“There’s no sugarcoating the bad news. It’s impossible to wrap your head around the numbers,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who also said an improved counting methodology might explain a fraction of the increase. Mostly, however, he blamed the cost of living.

“We can’t let rents double every year,” he said.

While median rent has gone up 28 percent since 2000, the median income of renters declined 8 percent in the same period, according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.

Some 550,918 households in L.A. County spend more than half their income on rent. L.A. has a shortage of roughly that same number of affordable housing units.

Rising rents and shrinking incomes seem to be hitting youth and families with children hard.

The number of homeless children jumped 41 percent from the prior year's count.  The number of transition-aged youth (meaning ages 18-24) rose 64 percent.

Latinos, too, saw a substantial increase, 63 percent over the year before, said Peter Lynn, director of the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.

Because it follows the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness, the count does not include people living in motels and couch-surfing, who are considered at risk but not homeless.

There are questions, ultimately, about how much local government can do to stem the tide.

Perhaps the most daunting indication of the task at hand was the persistent rise in the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles despite a massive push to house vets.

L.A., like other regions, participated in former President Barack Obama’s challenge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Massive amounts of federal and local resources poured into the effort.

Veteran homelessness briefly went down, only to rise again. When L.A. entered the pledge to end veteran homelessness in 2014, the county tallied about 4,000. Three years later, and after housing more than 7,000 veterans, the latest census counted over 4,800 homeless veterans, most of them living in cars, tents or other makeshift structures.

“All of the numbers are troubling, quite frankly,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has spent the past couple of years pushing for new policies and sources of revenue to tackle homelessness.

Ridley-Thomas pointed to the March passage of Measure H, a quarter-cent rise in the sales tax to support homeless services, as evidence that L.A. is moving in the right direction.

“The good news is we have the capacity to stand up to it. There’s an army out there, ready to do what we must do,” he said.

Local officials struggled for decades to get on the same page about where to commit resources to help the homeless and how to spend them. In the past year or so, they've united around a strategy and built cash streams for funding the push.

The county will start ramping up its spending on homelessness in July, when the new fiscal year begins. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a plan to spend the money, which could total $355 million annually, on June 13.

The spending plan up for review includes $42.5 million in the next three years for programs aimed at preventing more people from becoming homeless.

Residents of the city also recently agreed to pay for bonds to raise $1.2 billion to build new housing for the homeless and low income people over the next 10 years through passage of Measure HHH.

In addition, money from No Place Like Home, which the California Legislature passed last year, is poised to fund millions of dollars-worth of housing for people struggling with mental illness.

Garcetti has also proposed a “linkage fee” on developments in the City of Los Angeles to raise money for affordable housing.

“This is the year we must see progress,” he said. “The days of the county and city pointing their fingers at each other is over."

Homelessness is not a new problem in Los Angeles. The first missions serving L.A.'s poor cropped up some 150 years ago near what is now Skid Row, the largest concentration of homeless in the nation. Yet the scale of the increase in the homeless population this year caught officials by surprised.

“I am discouraged by this report,” said Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, whose district saw one of the biggest rises in the city. “More and more people are on the precipice of homelessness.”

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn sent media a written statement: “Homelessness in L.A. County has grown at a shocking rate,” the statement read. “It is clear that if we are going to end the homeless crisis, we need to stem the overwhelming tide of people falling into homelessness.”

Other demographic details from the count:

  • The Antelope Valley (50 percent rise) and eastern Los Angeles County (50 percent rise) saw the biggest bumps. The San Gabriel Valley saw a 31 percent rise. The total in the City of Los Angeles rose 20 percent to 34,189, with the biggest increases in Council District 1, which spans swaths of Highland Park, Echo Park and Macarthur Park, along with Council District 8, which covers West Adams, Leimert Park and the Crenshaw areas. Skid Row, in Council District 14, also saw a major rise.
  • Homelessness jumped the most among Latinos (up 63 percent), followed by Asians (up 31 percent) and Blacks (up 28 percent). Homelessness dropped among Whites, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
  • The number of people reporting substance abuse disorders dropped. The number reporting a serious mental illness rose, but at a lower rate than the overall homeless population.
  • The number of homeless individuals reporting an AIDS diagnosis rose 67 percent.