Los Angeles County officials this week stressed the need to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fighting homelessness and pointed to economic hardship as a key driver of the problem. This is preparation to send preliminary data on a point-in-time count to federal authorities.
“As we see dramatic upswings in the number of homeless people in counties across Southern California, we must be grateful for Measure H because, without it, the numbers would undoubtedly be even more dire,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “We must stay all in to get everyone in.”
The county did not release any results from a January homeless count, though Ridley-Thomas and some of his colleagues seemed prepared for bad news.
“I think everybody knows it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said.
The raw, top-line data will be sent to the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development by midnight tonight, but is not expected be made public until May 31. Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), told the Board of Supervisors the agency will refine the count data over the next month based on HUD’s review and additional analysis.
Orange County has reported a 43 percent jump in homelessness to 6,860 people, though officials said this year’s count methodology was more comprehensive.
Lynn indicated that preliminary numbers were also up in other surrounding counties. One outlier is San Diego, which is reporting lower totals but also had a change in methods and may not have an apples-to-apples comparison, he said.
Even a small percentage increase in Los Angeles County—where 52,765 people were homeless by last year’s count—could have a huge impact.
“Regardless of the direction of the count, there are tens of thousands of Angelenos who are experiencing homelessness and that is far, far too many,” Lynn said. “I think we need to double down. I think we need to go as far as we can to address the root causes of homelessness.”
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said a detailed breakdown of past data has been key to understanding changes in demographics of the homeless population. Last year, for example, LAHSA reported a 4 percent drop in overall homelessness, but found an increase in the number of homeless seniors.
Data also revealed that economic hardship was a more significant driver than mental illness among the newly homeless. Though U.S. poverty rates have declined and the median income has gone up in recent years, a strong economy has also fueled rising housing and other costs of living.
The county has found permanent housing for more than 27,000 people and interim shelter for nearly 32,000 since July 2017, but “there’s thousands and thousands of newly homeless every month” Kuehl said.
The board is set to vote May 14 on a set of recommendations for spending 2019-20 Measure H dollars to solve the problem and Ridley-Thomas said the changing drivers of homelessness should inform future policy decisions.
“The uptick in homelessness is more attributable not to the issue of substance abuse or mental disorders but income inequality across the board,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Measure H funding, collected through a quarter-cent increase in county sales taxes, accounts for more than half of LAHSA’s budget, according to Lynn.
LAHSA and the broader network of housing and services providers struggled at the outset to put the hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding to work. The pace of investment has ramped up, with the county projected to spend more than $393 million of the $421 million in Measure H funds allocated for fiscal year 2018-19, or more than twice what it spent the prior year.
However, those projections depend on spending at a much faster pace in the final months.