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‘Glimmer of hope’ for Los Angeles as homeless population increases only slightly over the last two years

Homelessness rose in LA, but only 1.7% — a far cry from the double digit increases seen in 2019 and 2020, the last two times the count was performed.

(CN) — The number of unhoused people living in Los Angeles has risen only slightly since 2020, according to officials from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, who announced the results of their annual homeless "point-in-time" count on Thursday.

The agency counted 69,144 homeless people living in the county, a 4.1% increase since 2020, and 41,980 unhoused people living in the city of Los Angeles, a 1.7% rise over 2020. The "point-in-time" count is mandated by the federal government and affects the amount of money homeless authorities receive. Due to Covid, the 2021 homeless count was cancelled.

The numbers were seen as marginally good news by city and county officials, considering how bleak the previous count results had been. In 2019, homelessness rose by 14% in the city of LA. In 2020, that number was 16%. Compared to that two-year increase of 30%, this year's two-year increase of 1.7% looks like a minor miracle.

Tommy Newman, a vice president at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said the numbers offered a "glimmer of hope," adding, "It’s not an accident. It's a combination of local dollars, federal dollars and a whole lot of work."

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the curve was "flattening," though he added: "What we see out there is unacceptable. The numbers are still way too high."

The numbers also look pretty good compared to most other California counties, which released their count results months ago. Alameda County's homeless population is up 22% compared to 2019 (they do their count every two years, and skipped 2021 as well); Sacramento County's has grown by 67% since 2019; San Diego County's homeless population grew by 10% between 2020 and 2022. The number of unhoused people living in San Francisco, meanwhile, declined by 15% compared to 2019.

"At least for the moment we appear to have stopped the flood of people into homelessness," said LA City Councilwoman Nithya Raman. "We’re starting to make progress."

Raman and others were quick to credit a number of pandemic-era programs for making the difference in Los Angeles: a freeze on rent increases in rent-controlled apartments, a moratorium on evictions and rental assistance.

Perhaps the most encouraging statistic: the number of unsheltered people in the city LA — those living outdoors in tents, in cars and in makeshift encampments — actually declined by 1% since 2020.

The number of people living in those temporary shelters is up 9% since 2020, and up 54% since 2018. Those people are still considered to be "homeless," but most would agree their situation is improved with a bed to sleep on and a roof over their heads. The reason for the shift is obvious: the number of shelter beds in the county has increased dramatically since 2019, from 15,000 to 25,000, a 60% increase. That includes units created by Project Roomkey, a federal program that paid motels to place unhoused people in vacant rooms (a statewide version was named "Project Homekey").

"It demonstrates that with the right kind of emergency housing, people will take it," said Newman.

(Courtesy of LAHSA via Courthouse News)

Los Angeles has the second highest number of people living without a home in the country, behind only New York. That city, however, has a right-to-shelter law, thanks to a 1979 court decision. And so LA has, by far, the largest number of visible homeless, the greatest number of tents and makeshift encampments that line numerous streets and freeway underpasses.

Most large cities in the U.S. have struggled with homelessness over the last decade thanks to high rental prices caused by housing shortages, an especially bad problem in California. Most experts agree that the lack of affordable housing — that is, homes and apartments that can be rented for what an average person can afford — is the principal driver of the homelessness crisis.

"Tenant organizers have been saying for decades that the only way we can stop the homeless crisis is to stop the inflow into homelessness," said Shayla Myers, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation. "This year's numbers tell that story very compellingly. We were in emergency economic circumstances, with the pandemic. The city and the county implemented really robust tenant protections that met the moment."

The worry, from Myers and others, is that those protections are unlikely to last forever. A proposal released by the city's housing department last month called for the eviction moratorium to end in January 2023, and for the rent freeze to end in January 2024.

"Unless we’re very, very careful about winding those programs down, there is a danger that people could be returning to the streets and that next year could look very different," said Raman.

During the first year of the pandemic, Los Angeles officials adopted a policy of allowing unhoused people to remain on the streets undisturbed, freezing all encampment cleanups. That led to a startling proliferation of visible tents and makeshift dwellings. And LAHSA's homeless count shows that many of those encampments are still standing. According to the count, the number of tents and makeshift encampments grew by 17% in the county, compared to 2020.

"What we're are seeing is a significant increase in the evidence of homelessness," said Kristina Dixon, LAHSA's acting co-director, at a press conference on Thursday. She said the reason for this was because many people who have moved into temporary shelters left behind tents and encampments, which are still standing.

The city has recently adopted a far more strict policy around homeless encampments, banning them near parks, libraries and schools — although enforcement is spotty and varies wildly by council district.

"We do not have a coordinated approach at the city at all," said Raman. "Each council district goes its own way."

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