A homeless man beds down near his belongings. (photo/Victor Aleman)
On May 4, the city-county agency that is charged with counting the homeless here in the Southland released its January 2016 count with much fanfare — even though this year’s findings didn’t seem like something to cheer about.
The number of homeless in the County of Los Angeles increased almost 6 percent to 47,000, with the city figures spiking 11 percent to 28,000. Instead, LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) played up the 30 percent drop in veteran homelessness, while family homelessness fell 18 percent in the county.
“L.A.’s success in significantly reducing veteran and family homelessness reinforces the importance of resources and a collaborative system to deliver them,” said LAHSA executive director Peter Lynn in a statement. “Homelessness responds to resources. When we have systemically applied city, county and federal programs and resources, we see results.”
Later in May, the agency released its corrected figures, utilizing a better method of counting homeless youth 18 to 24. And on May 25, the Los Angeles Times reported that according to its own analysis, with these adjusted numbers, homelessness in the city grew only about 5 percent with the county increase just 0.5 percent.
Gary Blasi, who has researched, advocated against and written about homelessness for more than 30 years, doesn’t buy it.
“There is little good news and much reason for increased concern in the numbers released for the homeless count conducted in January of this year,” the professor emeritus at UCLA School of Law told The Tidings. “Nearly all the trends are in the wrong direction, especially in the City of Los Angeles. The overall numbers of homeless people increased by 11 percent in one year, on top of the 12 percent increase last year.”
The special counsel at Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law also points out the number of people without shelter of any kind — which is already higher in Los Angeles than in any U.S. city — jumped by 21 percent in one year and 39 percent over two years. Three out of four homeless Angelenos were unsheltered and living on the street, in encampments or in vehicles, compared to only 5 percent of homeless people in New York.
Plus, since 2013 there has been a 55 percent spike in the number of homeless women. And African Americans have fared the worst among racial groups. Blacks are between seven and 10 times more likely to be homeless.
The shame of ‘mass homelessness’
“There is no reason for self-satisfaction in any of these numbers. Mass homelessness continues to be the shame of this city and county,” said Blasi.
“I do not believe the increased effort to count homeless youth in 2016 softens the impact of these numbers in any significant way,” said the public interest law attorney. “Any time one changes methodologies or the degree of effort, comparisons become more difficult. But there was no such change with regard to the non-youth component of the homeless population. Taking that into account does nothing to reverse the negative trend one sees in these numbers.”
Blasi says if there is good news in the count’s 2016 numbers, it’s that they clearly demonstrate what works to end homelessness. He called the decline in the city’s homeless veterans’ 41 percent “remarkable.”
“The lesson here is that what works is housing. Unfortunately, none of these gains can be attributed to effort by local officials. This success is the direct result of the infusion of both housing vouchers and increased effort by the Veterans Administration in Los Angeles, as a result of the January 2015 settlement with the VA and the resulting personal commitment and engagement of VA Secretary Robert McDonald and his team,” he pointed out.
“Unless and until the city and county take more than symbolic steps to address the acute shortage of housing available to the very poor,” Blasi stressed, “the homeless crisis will only continue to intensify.”
So what do homeless individuals think about all this?
“It grows! It grows!” said Greg Wilson, 48, who has been homeless in Hollywood off and on for years after he lost his job and apartment. Currently, he’s two-months into a long-term recovery program at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Cardinal Manning Center on Skid Row.
“The more the price of rent goes up, the more the price of everything goes up, the more homeless there are. So to be honest with you, it’s up. It’s up,” he told The Tidings.
Wilson pointed out how encampments are growing all over Los Angeles. And he really didn’t believe that the number of homeless families had fallen.
“There’s way more of them!” he exclaimed. “I’ve seen a lot more of them. Really! They’re the scariest part of being homeless. But you can walk right by a homeless family and you would never know they’re homeless. Yeah, it’s scary.”
Tyrone Taylor came out to L.A. after the steel mills shut down in his native Pittsburgh. He heard you could live for free in Los Angeles. And the 66-year-old lived on Skid Row for 20 years after getting strung out on alcohol and drugs. The Salvation Army sent him to rehab 11 years ago, and he says he’s been clean ever since. Today he lives in an apartment nearby, but still leads meetings to help others on the row.
“[Homelessness] hasn’t gone down, it’s gotten worse. Cause there’s a lot of drugs being sold down here. And a lot of people who sell it don’t even live down here. Gang members, whatever. They do their druggin’ down here. It’s sad,” he said.
“There’s so many tents, and they’re so close near each other that people are getting frustrated. Paramedics are finding people overdosing and dying on a regular basis, and you’re not hearing about it. So they’re just covering it up now with a Band-Aid.”
Eruterio Ortiz also lives at the Cardinal Manning Center. Since he came to Los Angeles from Mexico in 1958, he’s had many bouts of homelessness. The last one lasted six months.
He has also watched the streets and shelters become more crowded. “Overall, it has increased quite a bit,” he said. “Yeah, it seems like every day I see more men and even women coming to the street from all over.”
The same goes for encampments. “Even in places where I didn’t remember seeing tents before,” he reported. “Sometimes my mind wants to shut that away from me. But I can’t turn a blind eye to that, in fact.”
When asked what it would take to get people off the street, Ortiz took a deep breath. “Ah, there’s really no straight answer for that,” he said quietly. “With some of these people, it just doesn’t seem to matter what they do to try to get them to stay someplace. Some of them will adapt to having a place. But some of them, or a lot of them, will still prefer to be in that predicament on the street. It just boils down to that.”
Will city, county and state plans get fully funded?
The City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles have in recent months agreed on a so-called “comprehensive homeless strategy.” The city approved a $1.87-billion plan to increase housing for the homeless. But it’s still not clear where these funds will come from. Mayor Eric Garcetti has proposed spending $138 million in 2016 on general homeless services.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, has designated $150 million and is considering a millionaires tax to pay for additional homeless services.
And in mid-May, Gov. Jerry Brown announced his support for a $2-billion bond plan to build housing for the state’s mentally ill homeless. That money would pay for 10,000 to 14,000 new housing units for California’s 116,000 homeless individuals. It’s estimated that 30 percent suffer from mental illness.