LA County’s homeless population swells to 66,000, as growing number of people fall out of the housing market

Willie Bassie, 58, sits next to his tent on Skid Row in Los Angeles, October 14, 2019. A new report shows more than 66,000 people are unhoused, despite a multi-million dollar measure aiming to bring help to the streets. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters.

Homelessness is up in Los Angeles County for the third time in four years, a result of an ever-growing number of people falling out of the housing market.  

The results of LA’s annual homeless count, released Friday, show that 66,433 people now live on the streets, in shelters, and in vehicles around LA County. That’s up 12.7 percent from 2019. Within LA city limits, the number of people experiencing homelessness is 41,209, a 13.6 percent increase over last year. The number has grown despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent and, according to county officials, a system that is housing a record number of people. In 2019, LA’s homeless services system placed nearly 23,000 people in homes, according to the report. But more than 82,000 dropped into homeless during the same year.

“If we were in any other jurisdiction, we'd be celebrating the fact that we take that many people out of homelessness,” said LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the politicians at the top of LA’s diffuse and Byzantine homelessness system, which also includes city government and the LA Homeless Services Authority, a city-county agency that conducts the yearly count. “We've got to find ways to stem the inflow.”

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office did not respond to an interview request.

On top of high rents and a shortage of affordable housing, the Homeless Services Authority points to stagnant wages and systemic racism in housing, healthcare, justice and economic policies as major contributors to the homelessness crisis. The agency’s report on the count shows that Black people make up only 8 percent of the total population but 34 percent of people experiencing homelessness in LA County.

Advocates for people experiencing homelessness and tenants say that local officials haven’t done enough to combat unaffordability or protect the communities disproportionately impacted by it. 

“If you have those forces, then what do you, as elected officials, do to counter them?” said Carol Sobel, a civil rights attorney. Sobel has sued the City of Los Angeles several times on behalf of unhoused clients. “The percentage of homelessness represented by Latinos and Black people is extraordinary. It is overwhelming. But it's also true that the historically black communities have been gentrified.”

She said the city has not created or preserved enough affordable housing, for example.

Looking forward, the pandemic could make things even worse. The homeless count was conducted in January, before the coronavirus hit. For three nights, thousands of volunteers walked LA’s streets counting people, tents, encampments and vehicles that appeared lived in. That was followed by a sample group of surveys and months of data crunching to arrive at the final numbers released this week. Since all of this information was collected, unemployment in LA County has skyrocketed to a record high of nearly 20 percent.

So far the local, state and federal governments have offered a patchwork of temporary mortgage and eviction relief for homeowners and renters who have lost income due to COVID-19. Without additional protections specifically for renters, one recent UCLA study found, about 36,000 more households could end up evicted and homeless in LA County due to COVID-19.

“Our concern was that COVID-19 was the perfect storm of existing housing instability, very high rates of unemployment, not enough replacement income for unemployed workers...and what we see to be the absolute failure of our political institutions to provide meaningful tenant protections,” said Ananya Roy, a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography at UCLA and founding director of its Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.  

Homelessness, she added, is only one end of the barbell. In Los Angeles, like in other municipalities around the country, COVID-19 is exacerbating inequality that was already there. 

“We know that since the onset of the pandemic, the country's super rich have gotten richer,” said Roy. “I think that unless we are willing to tackle this fundamental question of's very difficult to tackle what is now a massive crisis of eviction and houselessness, and one that threatens to get much worse.”

Learn more about homelessness in Los Angeles in KCRW’s new podcast, “Samaritans.”

Episode 1: 'It’ll Get Done When It Gets Done'
Episode 2: 'That Is The System'
Episode 3: 'Back and Forth'
Episode 4: Homecoming