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Homelessness dips in L.A. and countywide, but Garcetti warns 'a real challenge' still remains

After three years of precipitous increases, homelessness dipped slightly this year, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported Thursday, providing a hopeful sign that new money flowing into housing and services is having an effect.

But in releasing results of the 2018 count, officials also warned that the number of people falling into homelessness for the first time increased, holding back the potential gains.

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And the report noted that three out of four homeless people in the county live on the street, a figure unchanged from last year.

“I’m not happy every day walking through the city, knowing that there’s as many people that are homeless, but I think it’s showing our strategies are working,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “It’s good news, it’s real results, it’s real progress, but there’s a real challenge.”

Garcetti joined two county supervisors at the East Hollywood headquarters of the homeless services agency PATH to make the announcement with a mixture of celebration and restraint.

“We‘ve gotten a bit of good news that will give us encouragement to run on and see what the end will be,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “But beloved, this is no time to rest. Let me just tell you, you need to put your work clothes on and get ready to go do the work.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn said she saw neighborhood acceptance as the biggest obstacle ahead.

“Moving forward, our biggest challenge won’t be funding. It will be NIMBYism,” Hahn said. “We need to build more supportive housing and homes people can afford across the county and we need to realize that if we are ever going to solve this problem in a big way, we need every community to commit to being part of the solution.”

In a statement, City Councilman Jose Huizar said more help is needed from the state. He urged Gov. Jerry Brown and other California elected officials “to match ours and the county’s efforts and help us get people off the streets and into emergency and long-term housing and services as quickly as possible.”

The new estimate of 53,195 people living without homes across the county was about 3% lower than the year before. For the city of Los Angeles, the estimate of 31,516 was down about 5%.

(Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

The changes were not spread evenly across the county. The report said homelessness was up 6% in the San Fernando Valley, up 5% in the San Gabriel Valley and up 3% in the South Bay, but down 17% on the Westside, down 17% in the Antelope Valley and down 8% in South L.A. The homeless authority posted a separate report on skid row showing a 7% decline.

City and county officials credited the modest decreases to more housing placements made possible by reserving more federal housing vouchers for homeless people, and new local money going to rental subsidies.

About 16,500 homeless people were placed in housing last year, the report said, a year-over-year boost of almost 30%.

Veteran homelessness, which had also increased over the last two years, was down 18%. About 3,900 veterans remained homeless.

Another bright spot was a 16% decrease of the chronically homeless population. About 14,400 of those counted were deemed to have met the federal definition of being homeless either for a year or four times over three years and having a physical or mental disability or substance abuse disorder.

While the estimate of 3,306 homeless youths was up slightly, more than half were in shelters, an increase of 20%.

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The most significant demographic change was a 22% increase in the number of people 62 and older. Twenty-seven percent reported a serious mental illness and 15% a substance abuse disorder, with 10% reporting both. Six percent reported domestic violence as the cause of their homelessness.

The African American homeless population declined to 35% of the total, matching that of Latinos, while homelessness among whites increased to 25% from 20% of the total.

Phil Ansell, director of the county’s Homeless Initiative, noted that the beefed-up programs got a head start in 2016 when the Board of Supervisors committed $100 million to increase spending on outreach, emergency shelter and rapid rehousing.

An additional $57 million in Measure H sales tax money was rolled out in the last half of 2017.

“This funding from the county and the successful deployment of our interconnected strategies played a key role in the January 2018 homeless count results,” Ansell said.

But others found the small improvement disappointing.

Former homeless authority commissioner Mike Neely saw the change as more of a leveling-off than a decrease.

“The issue of homelessness has been a problem that we’ve been trying to deal with for many, many years and we’ve had limited success,” said Neely, who now sits on the Los Angeles County Commission for Older Adults. “Through a great effort, we have managed not to have an increase. Outreach is working, but we don’t have places to put people. “

Neely said officials need to look to new ideas: “We’ve lost the innovation in the field. We’re doing the same old thing.“

(Jon Schleuss / Los Angeles Times)

Daniel Flaming, president of the Los Angeles-based research nonprofit Economic Roundtable, said he was encouraged by the drop in the number of veteran and chronically homeless people, but called for quicker action to plug the homeless pipeline.

“I think it would be a good idea for us, the analysts and providers, to move our desks onto the sidewalk so the problem becomes more immediate and urgent for us,” Flaming said.

Jerry Jones, public policy director at the Inner City Law Center, said the rise in newly homeless people underscored the need for action to fix the region’s severe rental housing shortage.

The 2018 count estimated that more than 9,000 people became homeless for the first time, up from 8,000 the year before, and nearly half of them cited job loss or another financial setback as the cause.

“It’s not as if over five years there’s been an upsurge in mentally ill people or people with substance abuse issues,” Jones said. “People are winding up in the streets because they can’t afford the rents.”

The new count incorporated a correction to last year’s total announced two weeks ago. The USC statisticians who prepare the report for the homeless authority said they detected an error that resulted in an over-count of homeless youth by about 2,700.

The authority initially reported 57,794 homeless people in the county last year but lowered the number to 55,048.

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The change highlighted the inherent uncertainty of the methodology. Though the count is reported down to the individual person, it is actually an estimate drawn from a statistical analysis of individuals, tents and vehicles counted over three days in January.

The tabulations made by thousands of volunteers fanning into every census tract in the county are processed by the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC.

Statisticians use results of a separate, in-person survey to estimate the number of people living in each vehicle or tent counted. A separate youth count is made by surveying selected tracts.

Some researchers have suggested that the methodology leads to an undercount. The real estate research firm Zillow said the tally missed almost 3,000 people.

Zillow, which forecast a 4.5% rent increase for 2018, also said a 5% hike would drive 2,000 more people into homelessness.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein, who has been sharply critical of how the city has handled housing and development, told reporters that the newly released count was "not credible," based on "what we see with our own eyes every single day."

"There's been some uptick in programs for the homeless, but at the same time, the displacement is continuing and actually accelerating because of rising rents," Weinstein said.

Homelessness in the city of Los Angeles declined by 5% over a year ago, according to the annual count that took place in January.
Homelessness in the city of Los Angeles declined by 5% over a year ago, according to the annual count that took place in January. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with amended figures by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and reaction from the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction.

This article was originally published at 1 p.m.

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