LOS ANGELES, Calif.–More than 51,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles County, a 3 percent drop from 2009, according to a report released today.

The report, by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which counts the homeless once every two years, found that social service agencies and homeless prevention programs have helped keep the numbers level despite the economic downturn.

“Given the high unemployment and foreclosure levels over the past two years, as well as the increase in national poverty, there was concern that homelessness would rise, but fortunately that hasn’t happened yet,” according to Michael Arnold, executive director of LAHSA. “This is largely because social service agencies, housing departments and federally funded programs like the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program have effectively helped those who are homeless move into housing and get back on their feet.”

Within the city of Los Angeles, the report showed a 9 percent decline, which officials attributed to dedicated resources, such as setting aside housing vouchers for the homeless, committing to build 2,200 supportive housing units and community development block grants.

“To see such a significant drop in our city’s homelessness rate as we emerge from a devastating recession is encouraging,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “However, there’s still a lot more work to be done and it will take an enormous commitment from all of us.”

Some officials expressed concern that future counts would show increases because many low-income families and individuals are barely hanging on to their homes, can’t make rent payments or are precariously “couch surfing” with friends or relatives.

“Local service providers have done an excellent job in supporting the homeless and finding them housing, but this mission is not complete,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said. “We’ve still got tens of thousand of people living on our county’s streets and that number could rise if we see new government cuts.”

According to the Los Angeles Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness, the results point to a need for more permanent housing to help veterans and the chronically homeless.

“The current census … demonstrates emphatically that it is time to shift our resources and our resolve to a system which does not tolerate 51,000 homeless year in and year out,” according to a statement from the task force.

“Some 12,000 chronic homeless individuals and 6,600 newly homeless veterans continue to try to exist on our streets; tens of thousands of others are without a permanent home as well.”

The task force–an alliance between the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce–has advocated for permanent housing as a first step to end chronic and veteran homelessness in Los Angeles by 2016, a policy it calls “Home for Good.” The group contends that while supportive services are critical to keeping the homeless off the street, easy access to permanent housing must come first.

“The combination of ongoing economic pressures and a rise in the number of veterans returning from service in the near future might well lead to an increase in homelessness unless the policies and procedures contained in Home for Good are implemented as rapidly as possible,” according to the statement.

The report also found that:
* 18 percent of the 51,340 homeless are veterans, who have a higher rate of chronic homelessness than the general population;
* there has been a 51 percent increase in the number of female veterans on the streets;
* the homeless population is aging, with nearly 34 percent of the chronically homeless aged 55 or older, which will increase the public cost of homelessness;
* of the homeless, 33 percent suffer from mental illness, 22 percent have a physical disability and 34 percent struggle with substance abuse; and
* 44 of those on the streets are Black and 28 percent are Latino.

The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count is billed as the nation’s largest count of homeless individuals and families, covering about 4,000 square miles. The count was taken Jan. 25-27. LAHSA is a joint city-county authority created in 1993.