What I’ve Learned about Homelessness in LA
Even with local money and smarter policies, cities can’t solve homelessness on their own
Back in 2015, I moved to Los Angeles to build a local coalition on homelessness. I had been living in Washington and directing the National Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that primarily focuses on federal policy. When plans fell through to open a West Coast office, I came to LA’s Skid Row anyway — a 54-block area crowded with tents, tarps, destitution, and squalor that many consider the epicenter of homelessness in America.
The number of people without housing had been rising in LA before I arrived, up 12% over the prior two years. By the fall of 2015, voters were demanding action and politicians were under pressure to find more resources.
In response, elected leaders agreed to place Prop HHH and Measure H on the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly passed both initiatives, approving the largest infusion of new homelessness spending anywhere in the country. Yet with thousands of supportive housing units and shelter beds nearing completion and a dramatic expansion of assistance programs, Los Angeles still has not begun to reverse its homelessness crisis. The 12% increase four years ago has now grown to 49%. Year after year, more people are falling into homelessness than getting out. Nearly 60,000 Angelenos are without housing every night, and thousands more are on the brink of joining them.
In a few days, I’m returning to federal advocacy as the national field director for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. I’ll remain in Los Angeles, traveling as needed to collaborate with advocates in other parts of the country. I’ve learned a lot during my time in LA, including these three lessons:
- Targeted programs can’t overcome a broken housing market
Along with two ballot measures, Los Angeles has committed significant resources through general revenue and surplus properties toward homelessness since 2015. The sum total of these local commitments exceeds $5 billion. Both the city and county have also adopted comprehensive plans on how this money should be spent. These plans include best practices and evidence-based programs that we know are effective in reducing homelessness. Money is being invested in strategies that work, but they only work if there is sufficient housing to allow people to exit the programs.
That housing simply doesn’t exist in Los Angeles, at least not in proportion to what’s needed. In fact, the scarcity of affordable housing is one of the primary causes of homelessness in the first place — something which has always been true but is worsening in high-cost cities like Los Angeles. Local rents have risen 65% over the past decade, forcing a third of LA renters to pay more than half of their incomes on housing. LA’s housing crunch is more severe than other areas, where rents have increased an average of 36% nationally over a comparable period.
The shortage of affordable housing is driving evictions and swamping efforts to solve homelessness for those who are already on the streets. Every day, an average of 133 homeless people find housing in LA County while another 150 people become homeless. Local governments cannot solve homelessness without dealing with the overall scarcity of affordable units, something that will also require major spending by the state of California and federal government.
2. We need to listen to people on the front lines of homelessness
One of my goals in coming to LA has been to organize a coalition of nonprofit agencies that provide direct services to homeless people. The Provider Alliance has grown to 75 organizations, including missions and shelters, domestic violence agencies, legal service organizations, nonprofit developers of supportive housing, and a wide range of agencies serving homeless adults, families, and youth.
Our membership has been intentionally limited to organizations that deliver services to people coming to their doors in need of help. This first-hand experience doesn’t mean we have all the answers, but the Provider Alliance has become a trusted partner in shaping decisions at City Hall. Providers have also been effective messengers in building public support for homeless initiatives, increasingly adept at mobilizing their volunteers, donors, and former clients in the community.
Working with partners in Skid Row, I’ve also helped lift up the voices of people experiencing homelessness. They rightly deserve to advocate on their own behalf, which means others must be willing to step back and recognize the leadership of people with lived experience. If we hope to make progress, homeless policy should be guided by those who have lived it as well as those who are directly responsible for serving them.
3. We’re not acknowledging the human toll of this catastrophe
A recent poll by the Los Angeles Times found that 95% of LA voters think homelessness is the city’s biggest problem. Homelessness was also polling as a top concern when I arrived in Los Angeles. Despite the staying power of this issue in the minds of voters, few of us are comfortable thinking about the brutal reality of what homelessness means for tens of thousands of people living on the streets.
A true reckoning of this crisis can only be measured in morgue counts, including the 1,047 homeless deaths reported by the LA Health Department in a single year. It is a reckoning that must acknowledge the rapes, random attacks, and inherent danger of living in public spaces: 47% of women in Skid Row have experienced violence within the past 12 months, according to the Downtown Women’s Center and Downtown Women’s Action Coalition. Homelessness is a traumatic existence of quiet outrages: the misery of sleeping in the rain, the isolation of suffering in plain sight of strangers, or the humiliation of eating out of garbage bins.
We have to be proximate to this human pain if we’re ever to respond as we should to these situations. Skid Row is such a place, but so is much of Los Angeles where encampments have spread far and wide. I believe one of the reasons why LA residents have been willing to tax themselves through ballot measures and demand action from public officials is because of their proximity with homeless neighbors. This human connection is essential in breaking down the outworn stereotypes that make homeless people too easy to dismiss.
We live in a society that offers so many ways to insulate, isolate, and segregate ourselves from one another, especially those who need our help. We have to overcome these barriers, if we ever hope to recognize our shared humanity and come to grips with the enormity of this crisis or the diversity of people living on the streets.
That acknowledgement brings with it greater empathy and the urgency to act.