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Rise in homeless numbers prompts outrage and alarm across L.A. County

Rise in homeless numbers prompts outrage and alarm across L.A. County
Derrick King, who has been homeless for 13 months, lives along the Strand in Venice Beach. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Most nights, Jeremias Ortiz has to shoo away homeless people who sleep and panhandle outside his restaurant, El Salvadoreño in Duarte.

The men and women living in the parking lot are bad for his business, but as their ranks swell, it has become a fact of life — as has cleaning up broken glass, urine and feces.

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“They don’t have a place to put [homeless people] in this area. I think it’s where all the problems start.” Local officials, Ortiz said, “are just ignoring the people’s needs.”

According to the latest point-in-time count released Tuesday, the number of homeless people in the San Gabriel Valley jumped 17% from 4,282 in 2018 to 5,021 this year — the second largest bump in Los Angeles County. The largest was on the Westside, up 19% from 4,401 homeless people in 2018 to 5,223 this year. Both outpaced the overall increase of 12% across the county.

Now there are just shy of 59,000 homeless people countywide. As the cost of living goes up, housing isn’t being built fast enough to meet demand.

The grim numbers had residents, including homeless residents, outreach workers, and frequent critics of city and county politicians all singing the same tune.

“It’s OK to be angry,” said Mel Tillekeratne, 37, executive director for the Shower of Hope, as volunteers served food and offered showers to homeless people in Lario Park in Irwindale. “Housing isn’t affordable for me and it’s not affordable for a lot of people. Until we talk about that, we can’t really make any progress in terms of homelessness.”

Not far away, Bruce Rosenfeld, dressed in an ironed, button-up shirt, leaned on the book-drop outside Azusa Public Library smoking a cigarette. Rosenfeld, 67, said he sleeps outside and is approaching one year of being homeless.

He wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s point-in-time count. He blamed a lack of shelters in the city for exacerbating the crisis, as well as a lack of affordable housing and the influx of gentrification.

“The mentality for a lot of these cities in the San Gabriel Valley is ‘not in my backyard,’” he said. “They don’t want homeless shelters … but yet they don’t want them in the street.”

Politically, solutions to homelessness have either not materialized or are not showing results fast enough.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors has made addressing homelessness one of its key priorities in its strategic planning, including a recent vote to use $460 million in funds for housing programs and other efforts. And the county housed more people than ever last year, which many officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said kept the numbers from being worse.

Linda Miranda, 62, at the encampment where she lives, on Venice Boulevard underneath the 405 Freeway.
Linda Miranda, 62, at the encampment where she lives, on Venice Boulevard underneath the 405 Freeway. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

“In some ways, those L.A. numbers were modest, compared to other parts of the state,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters in Sacramento on Tuesday. “What is not modest is the magnitude of this issue.”

The governor’s proposed budget, which is in the hands of the state Legislature, includes $1 billion for additional aid for homelessness — $650 million of which would be offered as emergency grants to local communities. But several bills aimed at increasing the state’s stock of affordable housing and protecting tenants failed this year.

“The state has to do more and better,” Newsom said.

After seeing the results of the homeless count, Supervisor Janice Hahn, the board chair, acknowledged that it is “hard to be optimistic when that progress is overwhelmed by the number of people falling into homelessness. The homelessness crisis took decades to create, and we knew it wouldn’t be solved overnight, but that doesn’t mean these latest numbers aren’t disheartening.”

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The board’s meetings are normally empty save a few gadflies and are relatively sedate. But Tuesday’s meeting was packed and unusually tense. Members of the audience yelled “Shame on you!” and “That’s an undercount!” when county officials showed the figures on a large screen.

Despite admonishments about disruptions, the heated reactions continued. At one point, sheriff's deputies had to walk through the crowd asking people to keep quiet.

Peter Lynn, executive director of the the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, called for change in Sacramento and for residents to become more engaged with the policy recommendations that his organization has put forward.

Others agreed. Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu characterized these results as “sobering but not surprising,” and added that bold action is needed from elected officials.

“Our city and state has more than enough luxury condos and high-income apartments,” Ryu said in a statement. “We need more affordable housing, and we need it now.”

In Venice, which has a been a flashpoint for a variety of homeless issues, most recently a proposed shelter, Dennis Morgan hunched over a broken bike frame blocks from a row of expensive restaurants and boutiques.

The 52-year-old said he has has lived on a sidewalk outside Gold’s Gym for nine months. He has bounced from Long Beach to Santa Monica, but prefers to stay in Venice.

Taking in the wealth that surrounds him, Morgan said he believes there has to be enough money to resolve the issue. Still, he wasn’t surprised by the growing homeless population, and wished the city would step up to house and train people to find jobs with steady incomes.

“It’s so simple. But no one cares enough,” Morgan said.

Daythal Varnes, who lives on the sidewalk outside of the St. Joseph Center in Venice, expressed similar frustrations.

“There are so many wealthy businessmen coming to L.A., buying vacation homes,” he said, pausing from a ride on his bicycle. “And here I am, just trying to find my way back to civilization.”

Times staff writer John Myers in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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