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Opinion

Editorial: There are fewer homeless people in L.A. County — but the problem remains grim and unacceptable

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Shown is a homeless encampment in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority says homelessness in the city is down 5% since last year, and is down 3% countywide.
(Carla Hall / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time in four years, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles County has decreased. It went down by just a modest 3% (and 5% in just the city of L.A.), but that is still a significant reversal of the shocking double-digit increases of recent years.

The dip, reported in the official 2018 “homeless count,” was welcome news. The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which administers the count, says that about 16,500 homeless people were housed over the last year, which is the highest number ever. It’s a sign that city and county officials are finally treating homelessness as the crisis it is and directing more time, money and resources into housing, services and outreach.

The most progress was made with homeless veterans, whose ranks decreased by 18%, to 3,910, and chronically homeless individuals, whose numbers dropped 16%, to 14,389. The latter figure reflects how county and city officials focused much of their efforts on housing the most vulnerable portion of the homeless population.

But the small successes must not obscure the fact that the homelessness problem in Los Angeles remains both grim and unacceptable — 53,195 homeless people in the county, 31,516 of them in the city. According to the count, the number of people experiencing homelessness for the first time grew by more than 1,000, while the “unsheltered” county population — those living on the streets in tents and vehicles and makeshift encampments — stayed about flat. The total number of tents and vehicles — a lightning rod for neighborhood irritation — went up.

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Meanwhile, the homeless population has gotten older — the percentage of people 62 years and older grew 22%, while every other age group shrank. About 35% of homeless people are black, 35% are Latino, and the overwhelming proportion of the population is single and male.

Small successes must not obscure the fact that the homelessness problem in Los Angeles remains both grim and unacceptable.

While county and city officials appear to be growing more effective at housing homeless people, the latest numbers show there is still much work ahead for local agencies — particularly in homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing and creation of new housing.

“This reduction may be a signal that we have stemmed the tide,” said county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas at a press conference. “But … we are not done.”

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And there continue to be significant obstacles. The county has a crisis-level shortage of affordable housing. Median rents have increased 32% since 2000 while household income of the median renter has decreased by 3%. The state as a whole needs to build 3.5 million more housing units by 2025 to meet population and market demands, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, a private think tank.

The passage of Proposition HHH in 2016 promised more than a billion dollars to build 10,000 new units of housing in L.A., but city officials recently projected that they would be able to build only 6,000. The bond measure was intended to finance up to about a third of each project’s cost, but with the devaluation of federal tax credits for financing and increasing construction costs, the city is already spending more than it had estimated.

(Mayor Eric Garcetti said Thursday that he expects more federal and state money to be coming in, which will enable the city to lower the amount of HHH money it spends on each project and therefore spread the money over more units.)

Perhaps the biggest problem standing in the way of the city’s efforts is NIMBYism over the placement of both permanent supportive housing and interim shelters. In Venice, Koreatown and other communities around the city, there are still neighborhood battles being waged to stop projects from going up. Politicians must fight back against neighborhoods that make unreasonable demands.

Unless government can get beyond some of these problems, more of the aging homeless people on the streets of L.A. will die before they get housed.

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