How Many Homeless People Live in L.A.? What One Count Tells Us

While the pandemic forced government agencies to work with unprecedented speed to move thousands of homeless Californians into hotel and motel rooms, housing advocates are worried that people who have lost jobs in the current economic crunch will also become homeless, essentially overwhelming that progress.

And the reckoning over the racism at the heart of so many of the nation’s institutions is pointing more attention to how racist policies play a huge role in pushing black people into homelessness — and then preventing them from getting homes.

The findings of the point-in-time counts showed that homelessness increased in the City of Los Angeles by 14.2 percent over the year, to 41,290 people — a smaller, if still alarming, increase than the year before, when there was a 16 percent jump.

In Los Angeles County, the increase was 12.7 percent since 2019, up to 66,433. That number increased 12 percent over the year before.

Ms. Marston noted that 22,769 people were placed in housing — more than in years past. But she said one trend in particular alarmed her: a sharp increase in the number of people becoming homeless over the year.

In 2019, 82,955 people became homeless. Many were placed in housing, but there are hundreds of thousands of families teetering on the edge — and that number has most likely already grown significantly amid massive job losses.

Almost 60 percent of the newly homeless population said their homelessness was because of economic hardship, as opposed to, say, a disabling health condition.

Ms. Marston also pointed to the urgent need to address wide racial disparities. In Los Angeles, black people are roughly four times more likely to experience homelessness.

[Read about the direct line from redlining to Los Angeles’s homelessness crisis.]

In 2018, the agency released a report outlining the ways systemic racism, including redlining and neighbors calling the police about people experiencing homelessness, has caused the gap.

Ms. Marston stopped short of supporting calls to defund law enforcement agencies. But she echoed a point made by many activists, policymakers and even law enforcement leaders: That police officers have, over time, been asked to take on responsibilities that would be better done by people with more specific training.

“The reality is our outreach teams are amazing, but they’re not out 24/7,” Ms. Marston said. “Our law enforcement side is.”

Elise Buik, president and chief executive of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said that now would be a great time to rethink budgets to create new public safety systems. And yes, that could mean moving funds from law enforcement.

“For any entity, your budget reflects your values,” she said. “I don’t think we should be so scared of those conversations.”

Ms. Buik added that she hoped that the outrage over racism translates into soul-searching by residents of wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods who have often fought the construction of affordable homes and even market-rate apartments, which could relieve pressure.

“We need to call out that a lot of Nimbyism is racism,” she said.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor and chair of a statewide homelessness task force, cautioned against waiting for more permanent affordable homes to be built.

“We’re doing more, and yet we are still being outpaced,” he said. “We need to accelerate on interim solutions.”

Those include more transitional housing for people who were on the street but don’t yet have a permanent home, he said, and investing in a “robust safety net” of mental health and other services.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles said in a statement that the numbers were a reminder that the homelessness crisis is worsening and leaders in the region can’t fix it alone.

“We need our state and federal partners to keep investing in this fight, with more funding and policy that makes housing a right for everyone,” he said.

Track California coronavirus cases by county. [The New York Times]

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