The Mounting Problem of LA’s Growing Homeless
There’s no place like home for every resident of Los Angeles
except the 47,000 homeless men, women and children who, at sundown, make their way to a freeway underpass, dilapidated tent, or a local shelter in hopes of a good night’s sleep.
The big city that attracts millions to its championship arenas and celebrity mansions has the reality of sharing sites like Skid Row as part of its brand. That reality has struck a nerve with many Los Angeles stakeholders who are frustrated with the pockets of visible homelessness popping up in unsuspected areas of Los Angeles county wide.
The homeless population is approximately 26,000 in Los Angeles proper–an 11% increase since 2015.
This is due in part to a lack of affordable housing, overall low vacancy rates, and high rent. These key drivers are limiting housing options and putting more residents at risk of becoming homeless.
“It’s a West Coast phenomenon,” says Dhakshike Wickrema, Deputy for Homelessness and Mental Health in the office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “It’s tied to a whole host of things in bad policy decisions. Before the 1970s you had a surplus of affordable housing because the federal government funded a lot of [them]. Something changed in the 1980s and the federal funding was slashed by 18 percent and it has dwindled away since then.”
According to a 2016 report submitted to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles recorded the largest number of chronically homeless people in the nation — nearly 13,000 for the second year in a row. 95 percent of them live outdoors, in cars, tents and encampments. Chronically homeless means people are sleeping somewhere uninhabitable for a year or more, or has had four episodes of homelessness over the span of three years. In 2015, Los Angeles led the nation in homeless veterans–some 2,700–and also counted the most unaccompanied homeless youth – 3,000–the report said.
Across Los Angeles County the homeless crisis is further compounded with individuals suffering from mental illness, domestic violence abuse, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. Hence, more than a comfortable dwelling is needed, but many homeless citizens and families require case management to address a myriad of special needs from employment training to health care to urgent drug and alcohol treatment.
The big jump in homelessness is creating public health and safety concerns for several residents and leaders who say the resolve couldn’t come fast enough. “We did not pay attention to this problem as it continued to get worse and now it is practically out of control,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is on the frontline combatting homelessness in Los Angeles. “It’s not just on Skid Row. It’s when I walk out of the county administrative doors, it’s at the bus stop, on 10th and Grand, Temple and Hill,
Leimert Park, it’s on 39th and Figueroa under the freeway…That’s why we have to rush and do some innovative things. Otherwise we’re going to be in a bad way and worse than what we see now in our neighborhoods, at the restaurant, [or where] kids are walking to school.” He goes on to exclaim, “It’s unsafe, it’s unsightly, it’s unsanitary.”
Citing conversations with colleagues and other city and county officials, Ridley-Thomas said there are also concerns for how homelessness in impacting revenue generated through tourism in Los Angeles and even local families who simply want to enjoy a day of entertainment in their city. “We came out of the movie and there was a whole family, with blankets and that was their resting place,” he recalls. “This was right on Hollywood. It’s sad and it’s sick. It’s a public safety problem, it’s a public health problem.”
Last November, Los Angeles voters approved what some call an “ambitious” measure, authorizing $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for the construction of 10,000 units of housing for homeless people. Measure HHH (Homelessness Reduction and Prevention, Housing and Facilities Bond) passed with 76% of the vote, meaning that voters gave the okay to increase their own property taxes to help the city’s most vulnerable citizens. This is a huge victory for the city officials who crafted and pushed for the measure, and a brave step for the voters who recognized that ignoring people sleeping on sidewalks or living in minivans is not a solution to the growing issue.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) oversees an annual count of the homeless population and coordinates and manages more than $132 million annually in federal, state, county and city funds for programs providing shelter, housing and services to homeless persons. According to their reports, and after extensive analysis of the data, they are working closely with the County of Los Angeles, the non-profit community, and the City of LA who have drafted and adopted a 47-part Comprehensive
Homeless Strategy. The strategy determined that 13,000 units of new housing, including the 10,000 units of supportive housing, are needed to house the homeless. The City’s strategy incorporates the United
States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) and LAHSA’s position that providing stable housing to a homeless individual prior to providing needed services (case management, health care or jobs) is more effective at resolving homelessness compared to offering services first without guaranteed housing.
What’s lies ahead are a number of development efforts, at various levels, to secure dwellings for the homeless as quickly as possible. This will require erecting affordable housing for those at risk of homelessness, supportive housing or units for individuals and families who are chronically homeless, and temporary shelter facilities, storage facilities, shower facilities and other facilities and supportive services or goods to those who are at one stage of homelessness or another. These developments will also mean affordable housing or units for veterans and for individuals and families who are extremely low income as defined by HUD for the County of Los Angeles. Additionally, these housing benefits will be extended to individuals and families who are not currently homeless but are at risk of homelessness; provided that not more than 20% of general obligation bond proceeds are used exclusively for those purposes.
With bond funds being allocated to start construction, there are opponents raising questions about where these new units are going up. Their issue is what it will mean for the value of their property if they have low-income housing going up in their communities.
According to Wickrema, people should not be concerned about the property value because the kind of supportive housing that will be planned by developers is not intended nor has it proven to drive property values down. “I would challenge you to look at the data in New York and what it does show is we have some very good strong developers who build fabulously,” she said. “They invite the neighborhood to be a part of the [planning process] and property values actually go up.”
While it’s clear that residents want homeless people off their streets, there are mixed feelings about welcoming them to occupy a home or unit in their community. To that Wickrema contends, “There have been some very, very supportive neighborhoods who understand [the importance] of supportive housing in their neighborhood.”
It has been reported that under Measure HHH, 12 parcels of land have been identified as possible
development sites in Lincoln Heights, Sylmar, Marina Del Rey, Westchester and San Pedro. Wickrema did not confirm such reports but says there are both “non-profit and for private developers with real estate representatives looking at the best available sites.”
This set of 47 comprehensive strategies that the LAHSA, the City, County and others have joined forces with pinpoints six areas: Prevent Homelessness, Subsidize Housing, Increase Income, Provide Case Management and Services, Create a Coordinated System, and Increase Affordable/Homeless Housing. To make a significant dent in the homeless problem, this all-hands- on-deck approach is being entrusted to several stakeholders and organizations around LA. Thus, city programs, businesses and faith leaders have been invited to participate in combating the crisis.
Since the approval of this strategy a year ago, some 500 faith-based institutions in Los Angeles including churches, mosques, and more with active outreach programs in operation have been contacted to partner and avail their housing and support services to the endeavor. Ridley-Thomas' office has commissioned select entities to research and mobilize such resources with the confidence that homelessness can be greatly reduced.
“I have no doubt that we are going to see change and we’re going to help a significant number of people who are out there struggling, thinking they have been forgotten,” says Janice Martin, Ecumenical Liaison with Brothers and Sisters in Communication (BASIC). As an independent community relations and government affairs consultant, Martin was tasked by the Ridley-Thomas to lead the faith based outreach for the 2nd District, for the Faith-based Initiative - one of 47 Homeless Strategies.
Martin has been fortunate to identify institutions of faith that are not only eager to help, but have the ability, the property and/or the resources to assist the homeless population with housing and other stabilizing opportunities. “What the research shows is housing alone is not enough. You have to have wrap around support services in order to reach the point of sustainability,” says Martin. “I believe we will see housing added to the Los Angeles’ baseline of what’s available to people who are currently homeless.
We will also see the faith community extending itself as landlords and as extended family to people who don’t have it. And whatever resources those faith institutions provide they will extend those to people who really need them.”
The passing of Measure HHH is only one step, but a sizable one for the City of Los Angeles. HHH will provide 10,000 units in a city whose estimated homeless population of 26,000 sits in a county where there are 47,000 homeless people to attend to. Simple math reveals that over 20,000 homeless citizens are still hoping for more than a sidewalk or tent to provide shelter at night.
“I would like to see us pass Measure H on March 7th because that would give the county resources to help the 88 cities in the county of LA,” says Ridley Thomas. “Cities can’t do it without the county.”