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LA has more chronically homeless than any other city. Here's what it is and what we're doing about it

File: A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
File: A tent stands on E Sixth Street at Gladys Avenue in Skid Row on Thursday morning, Dec. 17, 2015.

It's the kind of No. 1 that no city wants to achieve. For the second year in a row, Los Angeles has the most chronically homeless residents in the United States. Those are the grim stats in a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can read the full report here.

But what is chronic homelessness? We thought we'd dig into the statistics to better understand the problem facing the county. 

What is 'chronic' homelessness?

HUD defines a chronically homeless person as someone with a disability who has been homeless for at least one year, either continuously or spread across at least four periods in three years. 

From 2015 to 2016, L.A. saw a 6 percent jump in homelessness. In the year before, L.A. County saw the number of homeless people jump 12 percent between 2013 and 2015. L.A. has the second largest homeless population in the country — about 46,874 people. That's second only to New York.

Those who experience chronic homelessness comprise about 31 percent of that population, about 13,468 people, according to the most recent count. 

"There's a relatively high proportion of people experiencing homelessness in the city of L.A.," Lynn said. "We do see that the chronically homeless folks are more likely to be unsheltered ... on the streets. One of the keys that we're going to need to focus on is using our shelters, using our crisis housing to pull people off the streets and get them into placements, into housing."

Skyrocketing rents and limited affordable housing options have contributed to the problem. Other cities who have seen the price of housing jump — like Seattle, Dallas and Washington D.C. — are facing similar struggles.

"It compounds the struggles of people when they're facing physical and mental health disorders to get housed," Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, told KPCC.

Immigrants and day laborers make up a hidden segment of the homeless population in SoCal — and Skid Row shelters have seen a flood of homeless women and children in recent years.

The public face of homelessness

Chronically homeless individuals are the most visible segment of the homeless population. You see them in tent encampments alongside freeways, beneath overpasses and bridges, and in downtown's Skid Row

But, just like the rest of the homeless population, folks experiencing chronic homelessness can be invisible as well, sleeping on couches or out of public view.  

"There are many, many faces to homelessness," Lynn said. "I think it's important to understand that that's individuals who are sleeping in their car, there are individuals who are in our shelters, there are individuals who are on motel voucher programs through charitable and also public programs."

The number of chronically homeless individuals in L.A. dropped about 5 percent between 2015 and 2016, led by a huge 65 percent drop in the number of chronically homeless families, according to the most recent homeless count statistics.

The county saw an 18 percent drop in the number of families experiencing homelessness over all. Lynn attributes that to a focus on "rapid rehousing,"  programs that target people who are either newly homeless or on the cusp of homelessness by providing help with rent and security deposits.

Another factor: the Obama administration's focus on ending veteran homelessness, a particularly stubborn problem in L.A. The county has approximately 2,700 homeless vets. 

According to Lynn, the resources being used to fight veteran homelessness coming not just the from the federal government but on the city and county level have been key to making a difference in veteran homelessness across the nation.

"Those are the kinds of resource investments that illustrate how effective programs can be, and how this is a problem that responds to resources," Lynn said.

Officials haven't been able to meet their goal of eliminating veteran homelessness, but Riverside County, the tenth most populous county in the nation, has achieved "functional zero" for veteran homelessness. Here's how they did it.

Chronic homelessness and Measure HHH

Measure HHH's passage earlier this month means more resources are about to be put toward housing the homeless. A large focus of the funding would go to "permanent supportive housing" — housing that includes services for addiction, mental health and other programs that officials say could have a lasting effect on those who've become acclimated to living on the street. 

"I think that the support that we've seen for [Measure HHH] gives an indication that Angelenos have a very heightened sensitivity and sympathy for people experiencing homelessness, but in this case, very clearly people who are chronically homeless," Lynn said. "We have seen an increase in the street population, particularly those who are encamped on the street, and I think that that has driven certainly a perception, but a heightened index of concern, and I think that Angelenos have demonstrated that that is closely connected to their compassion for their homeless neighbors."

In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs is working on a master plan for its West L.A. campus that calls for building 1,200 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless vets.

Earlier in 2016, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell unveiled a new policy instructing deputies to avoid arresting the homeless and try to get them into services instead.

This story has been updated.