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We can't slow L.A.'s growing homeless crisis unless we know why it's happening

We can't slow L.A.'s growing homeless crisis unless we know why it's happening
People gather on Skid Row corner at San Pedro Ave. and 5th Street in Los Angeles, Calif., on May 4. (Los Angeles Times)

Ayear after a jarring 12% increase in homelessness in Los Angeles County delivered an emergency wake-up call to city and county officials — and an even greater rise in the number of people living in tents and other encampments made the problem visible to Angelenos on a daily basis — new figures suggest the total numbers have gone up again.

A count carried out by 7,500 volunteers scouring almost all of the county's census tracts over three consecutive nights in late January determined that 46,874 people are homeless — most of them sleeping on the streets. That's up from 44,359 in 2015. That's a smaller increase than last year — 5.7% — and was driven in part by a more accurate count of homeless youths. In addition, the number of people living in encampments and vehicles was up 20% in the county (on top of last year's staggering 85% increase). In the city of Los Angeles, homelessness is also up, by 11%, to 28,464.

It's disappointing that the numbers are up at all, but unfortunately, it's not surprising. The city and county have promised ambitious, costly, multi-year efforts to combat homelessness, but they have a long way to go before those efforts are underway, let alone fully implemented. The plans promise new permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing and affordable housing, but the nearly $2 billion over 10 years required to pay for all of that has yet to be identified. Both city and county officials are looking at half a dozen proposals for increasing revenue — including sales tax increases and bond measures — and the mayor has proposed that the city institute so-called linkage fees on new development to fund housing. Some proposals would require voter approval.

Complicating that — and making it harder even to use more subsidized housing vouchers — is the fact that there just isn't that much affordable housing stock available. The vacancy rate in the last quarter of 2015 in metropolitan LA was 2.7%. And what housing there is, is expensive. That's a big part of why people become homeless — and stay homeless, according to housing authority officials.

City and county officials need to maintain the will and the commitment to fight this devastating social problem, even though they can be sure there will be political pitfalls ahead. They will have to work hard to explain the situation to voters and to persuade them that the best, most effective solutions have been identified. It is possible to make headway against homelessness; indeed, the best news in yesterday's report was that veteran homelessness was significantly down — 30% — from 2015. That's a testament to the increase in financial resources and personnel focused on veterans by the federal, county, and city governments over the last few years.

On Wednesday, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl introduced a motion directing the county's Executive Officer to pursue a change in state law to grant counties the authority to seek voter approval of a tax on personal income above $1 million a year to combat homelessness.

Creating more housing must be a high priority in an area with such an extremely low vacancy rate and stratospherically high rents. That's the most costly part of solving homelessness.

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Of course, the city and county are already housing thousands of people each year. The problem is that as more are housed, more become homeless. So part of the challenge is to prevent homelessness in the first place, which in turn requires an understanding of who these people are and how they lost their homes in the first place. Were they evicted? Do they suffer from mental illness or drug addiction? Are they newly homeless or have they been on the streets for years? Are they in treatment? What do they need to rebuild their lives?

The chronically homeless are the most challenging of the homeless population to reach, to gain the trust of, and they require permanent supportive housing, which comes with treatment and services and is the most costly form of homeless housing to create. Much of the city and county proposed funding streams would go to this kind of housing, which is a crucial part of stemming this crisis of homelessness.

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