When It Comes to Helping Mentally Ill Homeless Individuals, the Challenges Are Steep

The amount of people living without permanent housing dropped by 3% across L.A. County and 5% within the city of Los Angeles according to the recently released 2018 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority homeless count. 

For the first time in four years the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County decreased from the previous year according to county and city officials, providing hope that efforts to curb homeless rates in the region are proving successful.

According to numbers reported by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, overall homelessness in Los Angeles County decreased by 3% from 2017. In addition, homelessness rates in the city decreased by 5% overall.

The data was released on Thursday, May 31, and is based on a count conducted over a three-day period in January. The report found that 53,195 people in the county experienced homelessness, down from the 55,048 reported during the past year’s count. In the city, the drop was even more significant. The city number decreased from 34,189, to 31,516 from last year.

The reported drop in people experiencing homelessness is a momentum builder for continued and increased efforts to house those living on the streets according to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who attended the presentation of the report at a press conference in front of the soon-to-be completed supportive housing complex, PATH Metro Villa at 340 N. Madison Ave.

“We finally have some good news,” Garcetti said. “A breath that we can take, and say that collectively the work that we are doing is making the right momentum come to the streets of Los Angeles.”

The report outlined a number of encouraging successes. The number of homeless veterans in the county dropped by 18%, from 4,792 to 3,910. In addition, the number of chronically homeless people in the county dropped 16% from 17,204 to 14,389 and the number youth housing placements jumped 20%, to about half of the total number of youths living on the street, despite a short increase in the amount of homeless youth.

Officials attributed the decrease in the homeless count numbers to an increase of services, most notably, federal housing vouchers and rental subsides.

The results are encouraging for Peter Lynn, LAHSA’s executive director, but do not hide the reality that economic factors are leading to an increase in first time homeless individuals.

Lynn said that issues like increased rental costs and a shaky job market need to be addressed as well as providing shelter options to those living on the streets.

The number of homeless individuals living in vehicles, tents or makeshift shelters increased by 5% from last year, a 32% from 2016. The report found that 75% of the homeless population (39,826) remains unsheltered.

“While there are bright spots in the data, obviously we still have a large number of people experiencing homelessness and the economic pressures driving Angelenos into homelessness are persistent,” Lynn said.

That is particularly evident in the number of first-time homeless individuals. According to the count, that population jumped from about 8,000 a year ago, to 9,322 in 2018.

Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District includes what some would argue provides one of the more visible indicators of the homeless issue, Skid Row, applauded the results, but like Lynn, noted that more work needs to be done.

“While the reduction in our homeless population in the city and county of Los Angeles is modest at best, we are—at last—headed in the right direction,” Huizar said in a prepared statement. “We need to continue pushing forward with out strategic plan and build the housing the voters mandated that we produce."

According to the count, District 14 saw a drop of 1% in homelessness rates. The drop was more pronounced in Skid Row, which saw a 7% drop from the year prior.

Huizar went on to call on Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials to match local efforts to increase services for emergency and long-term housing.

Certain subpopulations did not experience a decline during this year’s count. People age 62 and older saw a 22% spike in homeless rates, every other age group saw a decrease in homelessness.

Some rates from last year’s count held steady as well. The oft-cited rumor that Los Angeles suffers from an influx of homeless individuals from other regions was rebuffed. According to the report 65% of respondents reported that they lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Last year, 75% of people reported that they lived in L.A. County for five years or longer.

The 2018 report reflects corrections to last year’s total. Statisticians at USC discovered an error two weeks ago in the 2017 count; subsequently reducing the L.A. County homeless count that year by approximately 2,700 people (5%).

Like Huizar, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas offered words of encouragement about the decrease, but did not go as far as to paint the remaining work battle as an easily a winnable one.

“All that it takes to make sure that someone is housed, we are doing it,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We just need to make sure that we do it more and do it better.

“This work is not for chumps. If you’re not ready to step to it, you need to step side.”

City and county leaders have been trying to curve a homeless situation that by many accounts has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis.

In 2016, voters passed Proposition HHH, a city property tax bond that was expected to raise $1.2 billion in homeless support funds to help build 10,000 units of low-income housing. In March of last year, voters approved Measure H, a county quarter-cent sales tax that will provide almost $350 million-per year in services for people living on the street.