The U.S. economy may be recovering, but it's not evident on the streets of Los Angeles County. According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of homeless people increased from 50,214 in 2011 to 58,423 in 2013. That includes the count for the city of Los Angeles, where the number increased from 25,539 to 29,682.
Even as jobs begin to return, the desperate plight of so many people demands creative and focused attention. It's a challenge worthy of a new mayor and of renewed commitment from the county Board of Supervisors.
Over the last few years, millions of dollars have flowed into programs administered by the city, the county and their private partners, most notably the Home for Good housing initiative, run by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. Officials say the homeless count would be even higher if those programs had not been in place. But the persistence of homelessness suggests that services need to be intensified, better coordinated and more innovative.
One place to start: Service providers should target the right people for the right resources. Permanent supportive housing, with its many onsite health and social services, must go only to the chronically homeless who are also suffering at least one substantial mental or physical disability. And county authorities need to reassess why half the people who are placed in subsidized transitional housing programs — with a two-year maximum stay — return to the streets.
The county also needs more affordable housing. Even when people in permanent supportive housing or other interim housing are stable enough to move into affordable housing, there is often none available.
And there is ample room for new ideas. The city and county, for instance, should be looking for ways to turn unoccupied buildings into housing for the homeless. The county Department of Health Services is in early discussions with the owners of the Cecil Hotel downtown about leasing the 600-room building and transforming it into permanent supportive housing for the homeless. That's a creative way to expand access to housing.
Reducing homelessness benefits everyone, from the homeless men, women and children living on the sidewalks to the owner of the building that overlooks them and their belongings. It should involve the business community as well as government officials. It is both an economic problem and a moral crisis, and it deserves the full efforts of local leadership.