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Officials: Homelessness jumps 12 percent in Los Angeles County

A security patrol stops to offer information on where a group of homeless individuals are sleeping to volunteers Brenda Plantt and Stephan Saengpradap during the homeless census on January 29, 2015.
Susanica Tam for KPCC
A security patrol stops to offer information on where a group of homeless individuals are sleeping to volunteers Brenda Plantt and Stephan Saengpradap during the homeless census on January 29, 2015.

Los Angeles' biennial homeless census concluded with bad news Monday: There are more people sleeping on the streets and in their cars than there were two years ago.

The count found 44,359 homeless in Los Angeles County, a 12 percent increase since the last count in 2013. About 70 percent of those individuals were unsheltered — meaning they were sleeping on the streets or in cars — versus in homeless shelters. 

The census also found that fewer people were able to find temporary shelter in 2015 than two years ago.

The biggest jumps were in East Los Angeles County, the South Bay and Antelope Valley. The city of Los Angeles saw a 12 percent increase. It's home to 62 percent of homeless in the county.

"I feel the heaviness in the room," said Kerry Morrisson, chair of the county's homeless services authority board of commissioners, at a meeting where the numbers were released. She said interest in the issue is higher than ever. "We have increasingly more hands to help with this issue."

One sub-population stayed flat over the past three years, officials said: homeless veterans. They have received increased attention since President Obama set a mandate to house them all by the end of the year. There are 4,016, according to the count, compared with 4,007 at last count. But there are fewer veterans in Los Angeles County in general.

In a statement, Mayor Eric Garcetti said, "We must do more to end homelessness."

He said he plans to increase funding for affordable housing in the city and called on L.A.'s City Council to increase the minimum wage.

"We must deepen our commitment to a regional approach to homelessness, because this requires a strong partnership across all areas of government," he said.

90 percent of the county

The census fanned out volunteers across Los Angeles County for three nights and one morning to take a snapshot of the homeless population. Officials said they reached nearly 90 percent of the area of L.A. County. 

"We're housing more people who are homeless than we ever have in the city of Los Angeles, but our numbers are increasing," said City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice, one of the areas with the densest population of homeless and where a homeless man was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer last week. 

The long term solution, Bonin said, is more affordable housing. "Our supply doesn't meet our demand," he said.

In the short term, he called on the city to invest more in shelters and transitional housing.

That's a step away from the current national trend towards investing the vast majority of limited resources in permanent housing. Salt Lake City, for instance, attributes much of its rapid decline in homelessness to the so-called "housing first" model, which tries to get people off the streets and into permanent apartments as quickly as possible.

That's the tack service providers in Los Angeles County have pursued with homeless veterans for the past couple of years.

Bonin, however, said it's going to take a long time to build up the affordable housing supply.

"We do need more permanent supportive housing," Bonin said. "But right now, the default option if you're not in permanent supportive housing, is the sidewalk, and I think that's cruel and inhumane to someone who's unhoused."

Historically, L.A.'s strategy for tackling its homelessness problem has veered in many directions: from police raiding homeless encampments to passing laws — many of them stymied by courts —against sleeping in public, to funding small programs that serve different needs in the homeless population. 

A report by the Chief Administrative Office last month found that many of these efforts have been ad hoc and lacked coordination. 

That report found that the 15 city departments that interact frequently with the homeless spend $100 million on homelessness each year. But the report factored in everything from firefighters responding to emergencies on Skid Row to city collectors seeking payments for unpaid homelessness related fines, to workforce development programs aimed at the homeless. 

In response, the City Council started a new committee aimed at coordinating and streamlining homelessness policies and funding in the city. That committee is expected to start meeting next month.

Councilman Jose Huizar, chairman of that committee, said Monday's report "only amplifies the need for focused, comprehensive and meaningful action by the City and County."

Huizar's district includes Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, widely known as one of the largest concentrations of homeless in the country.

He called on the council to appoint a "homeless czar" to take over leadership of those efforts. 

"We need a point person on homelessness in the City of Los Angeles that will coordinate and help set policy direction," he said.

But at the end of the day, Elise Buik, another of the commissioners on L.A. County's Homeless Services Authority board, said the region also needs an attitude shift.

"Neighborhoods need to be willing to accept homeless," she said. "That's where we need the public's help."

This story has been updated.