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Los Angeles Homeless Numbers: Making It Count

By | Jun 6, 2018

Here in Los Angeles, stakeholders involved in addressing homelessness — from frontline case workers, to charity leaders, to foundation executives — just assumed the numbers of people homeless on Los Angeles County streets would go up. You would have to be a hermit not to see the thousands of homeless encampments lining LA’s sidewalks and river beds, in neighborhoods that just a few years ago were free of homelessness.

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Los Angeles County Supervisors and the Los Angeles Mayor announce the results of this year’s homeless count.

But this past week, Los Angeles County Supervisors and the Los Angeles Mayor announced the surprising result of this year’s homeless count — homelessness decreased in the past year by 3% in the County and 5% in the City of Los Angeles. This is the first decrease in the past four annual homeless counts.

A collective sigh of relief could almost be heard around the corridors of political power and in homeless agency offices across the region. Could it be that the tide of homelessness in Southern California has peaked? Leaders and advocates are cautiously optimistic.

So what does this slight decrease in the Los Angeles homeless count really mean? Should leaders be popping open champagne bottles to celebrate? Or is this just a statistical glitch in a tragic human epidemic that is continuing to get worse every year?

Local leaders around the nation who are encountering homelessness can learn three basic truths about Los Angeles’ current homeless count:

  1. New Monetary Resources Make a Difference. A year ago, residents of Los Angeles County approved a measure to increase their sales taxes in order to pay for more homeless services, shelters, and housing. Measure H programs ramped up between July to October 2017 and when fully operated would infuse more than $350 million into the homeless services and housing system. The City of Los Angeles approved their own Proposition HHH, a property tax bond that would raise $1.2 billion for building housing for people who are homeless. The recent Los Angeles homeless count shows that both of these tax initiatives are working, even though they did not fully begin operating until the second half of the year.
  1. Housing First is the Right Approach. For decades the traditional approach to dealing with homelessness was for a community to build a homeless shelter or set up a food pantry. But after years of escalating homelessness, people realized that without building real homes, temporary shelters alone would not work. Like many other communities, Los Angeles converted its emergency shelter and transitional housing system into a “Housing First” program, prioritizing its limited resources toward placing people into apartment units and providing support services. This strategy is obviously working.
  1. An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure. You can apply this famous proverb to the Los Angeles homeless count. In 2017, the Los Angeles region helped just over 16,500 people into permanent homes (typically an apartment rental unit). That is a lot of people. But the actual number of people homeless in Los Angeles did not go down at that same rate because just over 9,000 people became newly homeless during that same year. That means if Los Angeles could continue to house people at the same annual rate (16,500 housing placements) and stop (or prevent) people from becoming homeless, Los Angeles could end homelessness in less than four years. Prevention is the key.

For years, national leaders labeled Los Angeles America’s “Ground Zero” for homelessness. With one of the largest homeless populations in the nation, the Los Angeles region was key to resolving homelessness for the whole country.

In the past two decades, Los Angeles political and community leaders created homeless plans and initiatives that mostly failed. Good ideas, but no resources to back them up.

Until now.

Let’s hope this recent homeless count is a sign that this is the beginning of the end of homelessness in the Los Angeles region.