Homelessness up 9% in LA County: Questions and answers

A homeless encampment is set up in Elysian Park near the 110 freeway and Dodger Stadium. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Homelessness rose 9% in LA County last year, and 10% inside LA city limits, according to the results of an annual count conducted in January and released Thursday. 

During a press conference to announce the results, LA Mayor Karen Bass said the city needs more temporary shelters and ways of sheltering people more cheaply than renting motel rooms, which her administration has relied on in recent months. “We also have to figure out how to prevent people from falling into homelessness,” she said. “So frankly, with all that we're doing now, I'm worried that next year the count might be even larger.”

“The results are definitely disappointing with all the hard work and all the investment, but they're not surprising. There’s much more needed to right the ship,” the new head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (the city-county agency that oversees the count), Va Lecia Adams Kellum said at a media briefing on Tuesday.

Here, KCRW unpacks some of the key takeaways from the new count results.

What’s driving this crisis?

In a nutshell, the rent is too damn high. Adams Kellum from LAHSA pointed to a recent study from UC San Francisco showing that losing income was the most common reason for renters to fall into homelessness. 

“The underlying drivers of homelessness are the lack of deeply affordable housing, income inequality, and structural racism,” one of the study’s authors, Dr. Margot Kushel, director of UC San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, told KCRW last year. “The reason we see so much local and regional variation can be tracked really to the disconnect between people's income and the housing costs in that region.” 

This year’s increase could also reflect more accurate counting methods versus last year’s, according to LAHSA. Last year’s count was plagued by technical problems with a counting app and a COVID surge.

How important are mental illness and addiction as contributors to homelessness?

According to these latest count results, 30% of people experiencing homelessness self-reported a serious substance use disorder, up 4% over last year, while 25% reported having severe mental illness. But exactly how many people experiencing homelessness in LA fall somewhere on the addiction or mental illness spectrum is unknown. Dr. Kushel from UC San Francisco said in her interview last year that it’s important not to conflate the drivers of homelessness with the behavioral health issues sometimes afflicting people experiencing it.

“Certainly substance use and mental health problems set you up for homelessness, because it's much harder to compete for scarce resources if you have those problems,” she said. “But it isn't going to be solved by solving those issues. We really need to solve the housing problem.”

What happened to all that bond money LA was supposed to spend on affordable housing?

It’s being spent! In 2016, LA city voters passed Proposition HHH, a $1 billion bond measure to create 10,000 new units of permanent supportive housing for the neediest unhoused Angelenos. While the measure is on track to achieve its goal, it has been slow and is only now starting to bear fruit, and even when all the housing is built will only meet a fraction of the need.

Is this spike in homelessness tied to pandemic-era rent relief and eviction moratoriums expiring?

It’s unclear. “I believe that that speaks to some of what's going on,” said Adams Kellum. But pointing to an 18% increase in chronic homelessness in this year’s count (people who have been homeless for a year or more, versus people experiencing it for the first time), she said, “I think we’re still scratching our heads a bit on this.” 

Tommy Newman, vice president of engagement and activation for the United Way, said that during the first three months of this year, there were 20,000 eviction filings in the city. But he added, “It's never going to be just one thing that drives homelessness. I think it can be true that both the expiration of pandemic-related support and protections is a big factor in this, just as folks getting stuck on the streets for long periods of time, or experiencing homelessness over and over again, is.”

What’s next?

While Los Angeles politicians say they will continue to work on addressing the root causes of homelessness, expect to see more focus in the coming months and years on ending street homelessness — even if that simply means moving people to temporary shelter. 

“We must focus on unsheltered homelessness and expand it countywide,” said Adams Kellum. “We also need to decrease encampments.” 

Since 2019, the number of shelter beds in LA County has grown from 15,617 to 26,245.