Newsletter: Essential California: Why L.A.’s homeless population continues to climb

People walk past a homeless encampment on 6th Street, just west of Central Ave. in downtown Los Angeles in 2018.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, June 5, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Modern L.A. is a place of palpable, aching inequality. If you live here and are lucky enough to have a roof over your head, it is difficult not to exist in a slight state of continual cognitive dissonance. How else could we go about our daily business while “a colossal social breakdown is on full display,” as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez put it? So, we vote to tax ourselves, avert our eyes from the street and cling to the belief that surely, somehow, things must be improving.

But things have not improved, despite the billions being poured into homelessness programs. Officials reported Tuesday that the county’s homeless population had increased by about 12% over last year. The city numbers were even starker, a 16% increase over last year.

[Read the full story: “Homelessness jumps 12% in L.A. County and 16% in the city; officials ‘stunned’ ” by Benjamin Oreskes and Doug Smith]


The annual point-in-time count, which measures the number of people living on the streets, in vehicles and in shelters, found that there were just shy of 59,000 homeless individuals countywide, and more than 36,000 within city limits.

(Los Angeles Times)

The sheer scale of human suffering around us can seem too enormous to wrap our heads around, let alone chip away at — hence that cognitive dissonance. But there are plenty of large and small ways you can support fellow Angelenos experiencing homelessness, from volunteering to advocating for proposed bridge housing. Curbed’s Alissa Walker spoke with experts and local homelessness advocates to create this in-depth guide to getting involved.

My colleague Ben Oreskes (whose name you probably recognize as the former author of this newsletter) has been reporting on homelessness in Los Angeles for several years. Here’s a primer from him on the latest numbers, and what they mean:


Why did the homeless population grow this year?

L.A.’s red-hot housing market has made it difficult for people already living on the edge of poverty to continue to afford their rent. Many are being forced into the streets. Government officials have struggled to keep up. The city and county have launched various programs to add affordable housing units, temporary shelter beds and permanent supportive housing. But construction has been slow and often met with backlash from neighbors.

[See also: “How California’s big plans to address housing affordability crashed” by Liam Dillon]

When did the count take place?

Much of it occurred late at night in the county’s roughly 2,160 census tracts. In places that are tougher or more dangerous for volunteers to reach, such as riverbeds and alleys, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department helped out.

What does the homeless population look like?

In Los Angeles County, excluding Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, 44,214 homeless people people were living unsheltered, which accounts for about 75% of the homeless population. Of that, about 16,000 live in cars and RVs, and about 11,000 live in tents or lean-tos.

Why does the count matter?


The results aren’t just something for politicians to celebrate or worry about come election time. Real dollars are tied to how many people volunteers find living on the street. The federal government divvies up resources based on these numbers, giving the places with the most homeless people the most resources.

Similarly, the state allocated $500 million last year to help find solutions to the crisis playing out on the streets of L.A. and other cities. Half of that money was distributed based on the size of the point-in-time count. This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked the state Legislature to approve a one-time infusion of $650 million to open emergency shelters, provide rental assistance to struggling tenants and underwrite the construction of permanent housing, among other uses. A sizable portion of that money will be distributed based on the point-in-time count.

What’s changed since last year?

Money is beginning to flow from the city and county into programs and projects to construct more permanent housing and shelters. Los Angeles spent $619 million last year on homelessness.

Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a shelter crisis and created the “A Bridge Home” program, with the goal of placing at least one temporary shelter in each City Council district. So far, though, just three shelters have opened across the city, while others have been slowed by construction delays and political opposition. Similarly, many council members have been slow to follow through on their promise to build at least 222 units of supportive housing in each district by July 1, 2020. While some have exceeded the goal, others, including a district in the San Fernando Valley formerly represented by Councilman Mitchell Englander, have committed to building little to no units at this point.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


In a historic move, San Francisco supervisors voted to close their juvenile hall by the end of 2021. This will make San Francisco the first major U.S. city to shut down a juvenile hall in an effort to eliminate the jailing of children. San Francisco Chronicle


In early returns, Measure EE — which calls for a property tax to benefit schools in the L.A. Unified district — was falling well short of the two-thirds-majority needed to pass. Los Angeles Times

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A car crashed into a Westwood taco restaurant, injuring three. Daily Bruin

Meet 40 high school valedictorians from around the San Fernando Valley. Los Angeles Daily News

All-civilian panels could begin deciding LAPD misconduct cases starting June 13. Los Angeles Times

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This LAPD officer was living the “immigrant dream” before his life changed at a Border Patrol checkpoint. Los Angeles Times


These California environmental bills have made it to the next round in the state Legislature. KQED

California’s top bullet train consultant has been suspended amid a state ethics probe. Los Angeles Times

A California Highway Patrol chief is under investigation after sharing a transphobic post on social media. Los Angeles Times


Hundreds of cold cases remain unsolved in San Joaquin County, amid disorganization and a lack of resources to pursue them. Sacramento Bee

After a woman said she was raped at the strip club where she worked, she went to the manager and the police. Nothing happened. So, she decided to paint a billboard, telling her story as loudly as she could. California Sunday Magazine

On June 11, The Times will start a new investigative series on the Golden State Killer case. Sign up for updates here.


An unusual phenomenon will provide for historically low tides on parts of the Pacific shoreline this summer, giving tide pool watchers an opportunity to see an environment (and sea creatures) usually underwater. Here’s what you need to know. Mercury News

When one protected species kills another, what are conservationists to do? Sea otters in California are increasingly threatened by great white sharks. Scientific American

Scratches on nuclear storage canisters at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station pose no safety concerns to the public, according to a new analysis from federal regulators. The Southern California nuclear plant is no longer active. Orange County Register


A Stanford professor who saw through Elizabeth Holmes has become an unlikely minor celebrity in the Theranos saga. Mercury News

The Kitchen just became Sacramento’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant. Sacramento Bee

A Pomona time capsule was opened, 31 years late. Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

On Santa Catalina Island, one of L.A.’s unofficial “food deserts” parties over the opening of a humble Vons. Los Angeles Times

Nearly 100 animal rights activists were arrested after busloads of demonstrators stormed a Petaluma duck farm. San Francisco Chronicle

Oakland’s public library is getting rid of late fees. KQED

An Oscar Grant mural will be unveiled Saturday at the Fruitvale BART Station. San Francisco Chronicle

Celebrating the mighty artichoke’s role in pop culture at a Castroville festival. Salinas Californian

Plus: Here are seven festivals to eat your way up and down California. Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 74. San Diego: partly sunny, 70. San Francisco: partly sunny, 73. San Jose: partly sunny, 86. Sacramento: partly sunny, 99. More weather is here.


The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.
Joan Didion

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.