Providing jobs and other aid to Los Angeles County residents soon after they land in the streets could help prevent 2,600 to 5,200 people a year from falling into persistent homelessness, according to a new study from a liberal think tank.
The "Escape Routes" study from the nonprofit Economic Roundtable zeroes in on a key dilemma in Los Angeles' homelessness crisis: Even as officials have moved 33,000 homeless people into permanent housing since 2013 and launched a $1.2-billion construction program, high rents, job loss and medical crises continue to push people out of their homes.
Without early intervention, thousands of these people will become mired in chronic homelessness, deepening the region's stubborn problem, the study found.
"Housing alone is not enough to end homelessness. The steady flow of new people into chronic homelessness keeps moving the goalposts back," Dan Flaming, president of Economic Roundtable, said in a statement.
The researchers combined 26 data sources — including county healthcare and social services records, the U.S. Census and homeless counts and demographic surveys — to sketch what experts called a novel portrait of people at risk of falling into chronic homelessness, as well as recommendations of how to help them.
For several years running, Los Angeles has topped the nation in chronically homeless people, with 16,576 in the 2017 count, the most recent available.
Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor and a leading researcher of homeless demographics, said one of the most important findings was that 150,000 people in L.A. County are homeless in a year, although many resolve their crises on their own.
Because more than three-quarters of L.A.'s homeless people live outdoors in camps or vehicles, the official homeless count — a three-day snapshot of people living in the streets and shelters — has always been suspect, Culhane said.
The study says the number of people languishing in homelessness can be reduced, but not without a big investment. Many homeless people are eager to work, particularly those with children, but they need childcare, transportation, temporary housing, training and in some cases government-funded jobs to bring them into the work force, study said.
"The pragmatic argument for early interventions such as employment is that they cost much less than the roughly $300,000 in subsidies required to make a housing unit permanently affordable for a formerly homeless person," the report said. "If interventions are accurately targeted on individuals who have a high risk of becoming chronically homeless, the avoided public costs will more than offset the cost of the intervention."
Early supports are particularly important for African American families, whose children are 10 times more likely to be homeless than Latino children, and 13 times more likely than European American children, the report found.
"The ethnically disproportionate burden of homelessness among African-American adults begins in childhood," the report said.
Foster youth and those in juvenile detention were also identified as groups that especially need more support.
The report also recommended providing parking lots, showers and bathrooms for homeless people who live in their cars or campers; creating permanent affordable housing with supportive services for pregnant homeless women; plugging the pipeline from incarceration to the streets; and reducing arrests of homeless people.
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl welcomed the report, saying increasing early support could "significantly reduce the number of men, women and children who experience homelessness."
The city and county said they are supporting homeless employment programs, including subsidized jobs.
"Without a steady source of income, individuals and families cannot keep up with the rapidly increasing cost of housing in Los Angeles County," said Phil Ansell, head of the county's Homeless Initiative.