The homelessness crisis in Los Angeles is getting worse. After several declarations of emergency, the development of comprehensive strategies, voter approval of taxes to address homelessness, and the launch of new programs, how the hell is that possible?
Here’s the short answer: We are housing homeless people in record numbers, but people are becoming homeless more quickly than we can house them. When someone becomes homeless, it happens fast, and in a variety of ways. When someone gets housed, it happens at an infuriatingly slow place, and in narrow and limited ways.
We are going to see more tents on our sidewalks and more human misery on the streets in our neighborhoods — unless we can prevent people from becoming homeless, and until we can house people significantly more quickly and inexpensively. We can and must do both.
Scope of the Problem
The newly released numbers from the January homeless count are a stark illustration of the problem. Last year, there were 52,765 homeless people in Los Angeles County. We housed a whopping 21,631 of them and more than 27,000 found other exits to housing. Those are a huge and historic numbers, but so many more people became homeless that there are now 58,936 unhoused people in Los Angeles County, a 12% increase.
The scope of the problem is even more staggering when you drill down. In 2018, Los Angeles County housed 7,693 of its 8,267 homeless families. But family homelessness actually increased by 6% to 8,799 families. In 2018, Los Angeles housed more than 70% of its 3,886 homeless veterans, but so many veterans became homeless, that the total number of veterans living on the streets barely budged.
As bleak as the numbers are in Los Angeles, they are better than most of the rest of the state. San Jose County is up 42%, and Orange County and Alameda County are each up 43%. Ventura County is up 28%, San Bernardino is up 23%, and Riverside County is up 22%. Kern County is up 64%. Other cities along the Pacific Coast and elsewhere are also seeing big increases in homelessness.
Pathways OUT of Homelessness
The pathways into homelessness are big, varied, and fast-moving. The pathways out of homelessness are few, narrow, clogged, and maddeningly slow. Permanent supportive housing, despite its cost, is a tremendously successful model — for people who are chronically homeless (about 27% of the population.) But it is not the solution that everyone needs, and most people can’t wait until its built.
We need to try other solutions:
- Shared Housing is a model where homeless people live together as a group, often in a single-family home, sharing a bedroom with a roommate. It does not require long waits for government-approved vouchers; residents pool costs and cover the rent through SSI or disability benefits, or by getting a job. It does not rely on agencies to provide services; shared housing is largely self-managed, with the support of people who are formerly homeless (“peer bridgers”), and residents are encouraged to attend self-help groups. Instead of living alone, roommates form a sense of community and help each transition back into the mainstream. Culver City-based Self Help and Recovery Exchange (SHARE) has been doing shared housing successfully for years, and a pilot program I funded in Venice housed 24 people in three months for $50,000. The City incorporated shared housing into its homelessness strategy, but has failed to fund it sufficiently.
- Master Leasing is a phenomenally successful program used by the County of Los Angeles, and by creative social service agencies, such as The People Concern. Several years ago, the County Health Department recognized it was paying an exorbitant amount of money to treat the same homeless patients. They used health care dollars for the Housing for Health program, which provides housing for people through master leases with landlords, and costs less than the ER or urgent care treatment. Executives at TPC, frustrated with how difficult it was to house their shelter clients, master leased apartments to house people more quickly. The City has repeatedly shied away from master leasing out of fear of making a commitment to ongoing costs.
- Tiny Homes are exactly what they sound like — small homes for people who eager to exit homeless. A variety of tiny home models and programs are being used in a range of American cities. Some homes are as large as 400 square feet and some as small as 100 or even 500 square feet. Most are built in small villages, with electricity, showers, and shared kitchen space. They are cost-effective. in Seattle, tiny homes make up 12% of the city’s homeless shelter beds, but less than 3% of the Seattle homelessness response budget. Critics here in LA have said tiny homes are a bad idea because they “normalize” homelessness and provide a relatively comfortable disincentive for people to move into longer-term, more stable housing. That argument was stronger 4 or 5 years ago before we effectively normalized street encampments. Tiny Homes would be a great improvement and it’s an idea whose time has come.
- Rapid Rehousing are short-term rental subsidies that are particularly well-suited to help people who are newly homeless. Both the City and County have dramatically increased these rental subsidies in the past few years. We need to do even more.
All of these solutions will be hard for the City to implement without support from other levels of government. Unlike states and counties, the City of Los Angeles does not have regular and dedicated funding sources for social services. Our homelessness funding is primarily Measure HHH funds, which are limited to brick and mortar PSH projects, and infusions of money from one-time state grants and from the County’s Measure H funds, which are more flexible.
Pathways INTO Homelessness
In the past year, tens of thousands of people have become homeless in Los Angeles. They are from all walks of life — seniors, veterans, students, families, and more. They become homeless for a variety of reasons, and most of those reasons are well beyond the control of any city or local government.
But there is one major and growing cause of homelessness that the City of Los Angeles can do something about — housing insecurity. The cost of housing and gentrification are driving entire families into homelessness. We need to protect and promote more affordable low-income housing, and since several important affordable housing bills have stalled in Sacramento, we need to act locally on several proposals:
- Right to Counsel — We need to provide assistance and legal counsel to poor, vulnerable tenants to help them fight unjust evictions. it’s a helluva lot easier and cheaper to prevent someone from becoming homeless than it is to house them once they become homeless. My colleague Paul Koretz and I secured $3 million in next year’s budget to launch a program. We need to make it real — quickly — and expand it.
- Just Cause Eviction — We need to provide law-abiding tenants with protection from unpredictable and arbitrary eviction. A bill that would have required landlords to show a just cause for an eviction, such as failure to pay rent or violating a lease, stalled in Sacramento, so we need to act locally (as many other cities have.) This will help vulnerable low-income, senior and disabled tenants remain in their homes and avoid sliding into homelessness.
- Preventing Income Discrimination — We need to prevent people holding housing vouchers from being discriminated against based on their rental income source when looking for housing. An ordinance to protect affordable housing opportunities for renters utilizing rental assistance is currently being drafted and should go into effect citywide on January 1, 2020.
- Inclusionary Zoning — As long as market forces rule, we will never build our way out of the homelessness and affordable housing crisis. We need to mandate that all new developments and redevelopments — in every neighborhood — include low-income housing. A court case killed inclusionary zoning in California for a few years, but a recent legislative fix makes it possible again. It should be a baseline requirement for development in Los Angeles — and we shouldn’t allow developers to build off-site or get out of the obligation by paying in lieu fees.
- Vacancy Tax — We need to curb the ability of some property owners to hold onto properties solely for investment purposes. This takes housing units off the market, restricts supply, drives up prices, and exacerbates our current housing crisis. Some municipalities in California are putting into place vacancy taxes to limit absentee property-holders’ capacity to keep units out of the rental pool, and the City of Los Angeles should be doing the same.
But let’s get real. Even if the City of Los Angeles implemented a range of quick, nimble and less expensive programs to house people, and even if the City of Los Angeles could halt evictions and cap rents, people will continue to fall into homelessness at a fast rate due to forces that no city can control. By and large, homelessness is created by broader economic and social trends. People look most frequently to cities to solve the problem of homelessness — but homelessness is an inevitable feature of the current American economic and political system.
Until we address at a national and state level issues such as income inequality, mental health care, addiction, and a racist “school to prison” pipeline, and unless the federal government stops gutting the safety net, cutting health care, and making it harder for people to access housing, we will be faced with the Sisyphean task of constantly building and providing more housing for the newly homeless. For every ounce of energy we put toward local solutions, we need to put an equal effort into fundamental change on a national level.