City hall and homeless tent on the road

Addressing Los Angeles’ growing homeless population was never an easy fix. Once COVID-19 was added to the mix, the challenge of getting people off the streets and into stable housing only intensified. 

Despite these difficulties, homeless advocacy organizations have succeeded in connecting unhoused individuals with outreach services, interim and permanent housing and have also prevented a number of people from falling into homelessness again. 

More than 1,300 people tuned in recently to watch the Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority’s (LAHSA) first State of Homelessness Zoom town hall event, which presented data on the rehousing system’s efforts in 2020. 

“Because of the support of LA voters, we’re helping more people than ever before — but we know that’s not how it looks on our streets, because more people than ever are being pushed into homelessness” said LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston, who led the presentation.

The town hall also included a panel discussion and speakers who’ve personally experienced and overcome homelessness as well as a brief recorded statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

Last year, LAHSA and partnering organizations provided outreach to 46,533 people, housed 20,690 people and placed 27,235 people in temporary housing, according to the presentation. 

LAHSA leads and coordinates the rehousing system that helps people who’ve fallen into homelessness.

LAHSA receives about $600 million in annual funding from the federal, state, county and city governments as well as sales taxes, which is distributed to over 300 nonprofit providers in the community that are “working on the front lines to address this crisis,” Marston said.

When COVID-19 started to ravage across the country and world, “Our system really pivoted quickly to a rapid lifesaving mission,” she said. 

LAHSA received $800 million in funding from the state and federal governments in 2020 for additional support to help unhoused Angelenos during the pandemic.

These additional resources created better alignment with its partnering organizations to work together with a collective goal of bringing as many people inside as possible, she said.

“Because of this, we moved faster than we even thought was possible.”

The pandemic-related resources brought forth the creation of 30 COVID Response Teams, which performed over 120,000 COVID-19 tests and more than 2,500 wellness checks and have administered over 3,000 COVID-19 vaccines and counting to unhoused individuals in 2020, Marston said. 

LAHSA used this mix of state and federal funding to bring more than 10,000 people most at risk for COVID-19 into the shelter of vacant hotel and motel rooms through the Project Roomkey program as well as the city’s Recreation and Parks emergency shelters and the county’s quarantine facilities in 2020, she said. 

These facilities helped to compensate for the 50% loss of interim shelter capacity, which happened as a result of the CDC’s recommendations for social distancing and quarantine protocol at congregate shelters, she explained. 

Despite this, LAHSA and its partners secured interim housing for around 27,325 people in 2020, a 5% increase from the year prior.

While “temporary shelter is great,” it’s “actually more expensive than permanent housing,” Marston said. “It’s really only a stopgap to help people get to safety until their permanent housing is available.

“Once someone is stabilized in (permanent) housing, they can start to recover in every other aspect of their life.”

She added that about 95% of people who are placed in permanent housing through its system do not return to homelessness again.

Even though LA has a limited supply of affordable housing, LAHSA’s system helped 20,690 individuals experiencing homelessness secure permanent housing in 2020, she said.

This is a slight decrease from the year prior, due to the major pivot in the rehousing system’s efforts to address COVID-19, Marston said.

Outreach teams also played a vital role in 2020, connecting more people to resources than ever before, according to the presentation.

The outreach teams assisted 46,533 unhoused individuals in 2020, a 20% increase from the year prior, she said.

The 240 outreach teams are made up of more than 850 members, many of whom have lived experience with homelessness.

The teams go to encampments and build relationships with people with a “primary focus” of bringing the most vulnerable people into shelters and housing, also connecting and providing clients with medical and mental health care services, she said.

“The goal always is to get everyone into housing,” she said. “We really take a ‘whatever-it-takes’ approach to support people in becoming rehoused.”

These efforts in 2020 also kept over 5,500 people from falling back into homelessness with its “growing system of triage work,” Marston said. 

The rehousing system’s problem-solving program uses emergency funds and subsidies to provide rent assistance for those who don’t have the resources available that would permit them to remain in their residences, she explained. 

It also provides legal support for those at risk of eviction, she added. Around 95% of these legal cases reach a resolution, which means either the eviction gets reversed or people either have a “soft landing” and have a place to go so they don’t fall into homelessness once again, she explained. 

The biggest challenge is preventing homelessness, and “this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we need to do for prevention,” Marston said. 

There are about 568,000 people experiencing homelessness nationwide, and a quarter of those people reside in California, according to 2020 national and state statistics presented during the town hall. 

 According to the 2020 Point in Time Count, on any given night in LA County, there are about 66,436 people experiencing homelessness — “and that’s unacceptable,” Marston said. 

The rehousing system has helped over 64,000 people into housing over the past three years, which is “nearly everybody experiencing homelessness, but unfortunately, as people were becoming housed, more became homeless,” she explained.

“It’s hard to reconcile that we’re ending homelessness for more people than ever compared to what we see on the streets every day,” she said. 

On average, LAHSA connects about 207 people with housing each day; however, “at the same time, 227 people are pushed back into homelessness every day,” she said. 

Marston said there’s an influx in tents and encampments in places they’re not normally seen. She said this is due to the CDC’s shelter-in-place order. 

To address homelessness, investments must be balanced in three key areas: prevention, rehousing and housing creation. 

LA has invested “heavily” in the rehousing pillar but has fallen short on preventing homelessness and creating affordable housing, she said. 

“We can end homelessness, and how do we know this? We created it.”

Decades of policy choices have led to the proliferation of homelessness and the overrepresentation of Black people experiencing homelessness, Marston explained. 

Black people account for 8% of LA’s population and a third of the homeless population, she said.

A map from 1939 was included in the presentation, which Marston used to explain how the discriminatory governmental practice of redlining has prevented Black communities and families from owning or taking out loans on homes. 

This discriminatory land use system combined with a lack of tenant protections has led the homelessness crisis to escalate significantly, she explained. 

Stagnant incomes and rising prices also play a significant factor in the crisis. Renters in LA must make 2.8 times the minimum wage amount to afford the average cost of rent, which is $2,182, according to the presentation. 

Mental health plays a huge role in the homelessness crisis, too. 

California put an end to institutionalized mental care with an intent to replace it with a system that brought services closer to the community, “but those resources never came to fruition,” she explained. 

People are no longer institutionalized for mental ailments, but many are institutionalized within the prison system. 

Around 60% of LA’s homeless population have been cycled through the prison system, according to the presentation. The “punitive” justice system and mass incarceration are “huge drivers of homelessness, disproportionately affecting Black Angelenos.”

The state’s divestment in affordable housing has also intensified the growing housing crisis. When the state eliminated redevelopment funding in 2011, over $1 billion of the annual affordable housing funding was slashed down to $0. 

This is a “key driver,” as there is not enough housing to meet the need, she said.

These policies put in place by federal and state governments have restricted housing development, hiked up prices and marginalized people of color, Marston emphasized.

As a result, LA has roughly the same amount of housing units today with a population of 10 million as it did when the population was only 6 million, she stated. LA County needs more than 509,000 affordable housing units to meet this need, Marston added.

“We’re all frustrated and heartbroken at the complex and persistent challenges of homelessness, and we know that more has to be done,” she said. 

“We can’t stop there,” Marston said. “We have to continue to build on the coordination and the momentum that was created to make a lasting impact on our homelessness crisis."