Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by about 4 percent over the course of the pandemic but officials said the numbers were heavily impacted by COVID-19 protocols and warned the total could spike in coming years as a variety of temporary measures designed to prevent homelessness are about to expire.
The Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority released the results of the 2022 Homeless Count on Thursday and the county’s total number of homeless residents increased to 69,144 from 66,436 in 2020. No count occurred in 2021 due to Covid restrictions and officials said the rate of increase slowed from past counts with homelessness increasing by 26% between 2018 and 2020.
Kristina Dixon, LAHSA Acting Co-Executive Director said the count had difficulty capturing youth and families who would normally account for about 10 percent of the homeless population.
“The youth count was particularly challenging as many youth access centers were closed or the Omicron surge,” she said. “This led to a lower number of surveys completed than previously while we were not able to fully see the impacts of the pandemic on our most vulnerable youth and families.”
Santa Monica counted 807 individuals during the annual event, an 11% decrease from 2020 and that trend was mirrored throughout the areas. Los Angeles County is divided into 8 Service Planning Areas for a variety of services and SPA 5 (including Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Culver City, Ladera, Malibu, Mar Vista, Marina del Rey, Pacific Palisades, Palms, Playa del Rey, Santa Monica, Venice, West LA, Westchester, and Westwood) reported a 23% decline from 2020. The areas to the east and south of SPA 5 reported double digit growth in their results.
However, Dixon said residents who felt the problem was worse were justified in their experience as the count reported a significant increase in tents, vehicles and makeshift shelters.
“We know the numbers we’ve talked about so far may surprise you, and that it feels like the increase in homelessness should be larger than ever,” she said. “The numbers from this use on this count are telling us that there was a 17% increase in tents, vehicles and makeshift shelters on our streets and sidewalks for 2020.”
She said pandemic rules prevented officials from clearing encampments creating a surge in the evidence of homelessness that was in excess of the number of people in those encampments.
However, she said a potential new wave of homelessness could be on the horizon.
“During the pandemic one time federal pandemic assistance and policies helped keep people in their homes and expanded shelter,” she said. “However, many of the policies and funding sources that made an impact are now ending, leaving households unsure if they will be able to keep their homes and less resources for rehousing systems in response. Because homelessness is a lagging indicator, it is possible that future homeless counts could show significant increases and time will tell what COVID-19 true effect is on our neighbors on the edge of experiencing homelessness.”
Reactions to the figures from county officials generally expressed frustration at the continued growth in homelessness despite huge investments.
According to county numbers, about 40 percent of the homeless population self-reported experiencing serious mental illness or substance abuse problems.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said the reported figures were likely an undercount in her opinion.
“LAHSA’s homelessness tally and finding that 39% of people experiencing homelessness reported experiencing serious mental illness or substance abuse are both guesstimates, at best,” she said. I think both of these numbers are much bigger than what’s being reported. The California Policy Lab at UCLA, for example, found that the percentage of people experiencing mental health illness and substance abuse addiction is closer to 50%.”
Barger said more should be done to increase beds and services countywide.
“Our solutions must take a whole person approach and equitably provide both housing and healing,” she said.
L.A. Controller Ron Galperin said residents were not seeing the results of large cash infusions into the crisis.
“The latest homeless count results are deeply frustrating. Taxpayers have opted to invest billions of dollars to address the homelessness crisis, only to be disappointed as benchmarks for progress continue to go unmet,” he said. “Despite historic public spending to address the issue, the number of people who are unhoused in our region continues to increase, while housing and services remain out of reach for thousands on our streets. We need to implement more temporary solutions to help people get a roof over their head right away as we continue to push for greater access to supportive housing.”
However, some service providers saw cause for optimism.
Elise Buik, President and CEO of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles said the count showed programs like Project Roomkey and Homekey were successful in providing emergency housing and participation in those efforts shows it would be possible to house more homeless people if more housing were available.
“Unsurprisingly, the number of people we house every year has plateaued,” she said. “It’s much better than it used to be, thanks to investments that we’ve made, but the number of people moving into permanent housing needs to continue to grow, and that can only happen with more permanent housing options that would be created through the United to House L.A. ballot measure, and the new L.A. County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency.”
People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) CEO, Jennifer Hark Dietz said the Los Angeles numbers mirror trends across the state with rising costs putting housing out of reach to many at an ever-increasing pace.
“We know what works to end homelessness – access to affordable housing and necessary services. When we properly resource proven solutions, we see results. I hope this data helps us better understand the causes and solutions of homelessness, and advocate for more of what our unhoused neighbors so desperately need,” she said.