Why we aren’t ending homelessness in Los Angeles

Bill Pitkin
Jun 5 · 5 min read

Homelessness is one of the top community and political issues in Los Angeles and across California. The results of the 2019 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count released yesterday confirm what residents see and experience throughout our region: homelessness remains an enduring problem despite heightened attention and funding to address it in recent years. Why? Because we think that we can solve complex problems with simple solutions.

Homelessness is one of the most complex problems we face as a society and region. There have been been many recent pronouncements of the new “crisis” of homelessness and lack of affordable housing. These problems are not new, however; they are decades in the making.

Los Angeles has a long history of housing segregation by race and class, driven by federal policy and the practices of financial institutions to “redline” communities of color beginning in the 1930s. In 1950, writing for The Nation, Charles Abrams observed about Los Angeles that “behind the palm trees are grim four-story wooden structures affording a miserable shelter to tens of thousands of families.” Plans for public housing gave way to slum clearance and redevelopment in areas like Chavez Ravine, Bunker Hill and other “blighted” parts of the city.

With pro-growth business interests dominating local policy, very little public or affordable housing was built over ensuing decades. As the economy shifted from good-paying manufacturing to low-wage service jobs and federal policy began to chip away at the social safety net, L.A. residents began to experience increasing housing pressures and see a rise in homelessness.

During the late-1980s, Mayor Bradley appointed the “Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee for Affordable Housing” that led to the establishment of the City’s Housing Department. A nonprofit infrastructure began to form as well, with the creation of Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing (SCANPH) and affordable housing developers such as Skid Row Housing Trust and A Community of Friends. The L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) was formed in 1993 as part of settlement between the City and County of LA for their responsibilities in addressing homelessness.

Responses to housing insecurity and homelessness were slow and disjointed, with government and community efforts playing catch up after decades of disinvestment in the face of a changing job market and increasing poverty. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that coordinated efforts — across and within city, county, and nonprofit sectors — emerged. After a failed attempt around 2004 at a broad-based ten-year plan to end homelessness, entities such as the Corporation for Supportive Housing began to bring together these sectors to partner and align their work.

With increasing attention by political leadership and business leaders to the issue, this partnership, led by United Way of Greater L.A., established the Home For Good Action Plan in 2010 that prioritized coordinating funding and action to provide housing with services for the thousands of people who needed it in LA. This continuing collaborative effort was instrumental in developing the support necessary as the City and County launched complementary plans to end homelessness in 2016 and successfully campaigned to voters to support Proposition HHH and Measure H, raising nearly $5 billion over ten years to address the problem. More than two years in, we aren’t seeing the count of people experiencing homelessness go down and residents and many news articles are asking, why not?

The conventional wisdom is that we are seeing many more people fall into homelessness, due to the overall economic and housing trends in L.A., similar to what other west coast such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego are experiencing. So, even as we are housing many more people over recent years, the “in-flow” into homelessness is growing and the homelessness response system can’t keep up. The data seem to bear this out (131 people exit homelessness every day but about 151 became homeless); but even more fundamentally we are struggling because we think that fixing this problem will be simple and quick.

The current problem of homelessness and housing insecurity has resulted from decades of structural racism, disinvestment, displacement and increasing economic and social inequality. So, despite the fact that we have more funding, attention and human resources dedicated to helping get more people into housing, our efforts to truly end homelessness will be in vain unless there is an urgent, sustained effort beyond the “homelessness sector” to tackle the systemic issues that cause homelessness.

First, we should stop doing things that exacerbate the problem: encampment sweeps, criminalization, shelter without links to permanent housing, and evicting and displacing low-income people are all just moving people around and, in some cases, causing more homelessness.

Second, we need to recognize that there is no quick-fix, magic pill that will end homelessness. By definition, housing is the only thing that actually ends or prevents homelessness, but we cannot expect that the overall number of people who are homeless will automatically go down by just providing more housing (or shelter or services). We also need to make sure people on the margins have the support necessary to not fall into homelessness.

Third, we need to engage people at all levels and from all sectors in our region to support an equity-based approach to making sure everyone has a place to call home. Voters agreed to be taxed to address homelessness, but we — especially those of us in single-family homes — should be equally supportive of increasing density to allow for more affordable housing in our neighborhoods. Policymakers need to enact policies to preserve the affordable housing we already have and protect renters from eviction and displacement. In addition to entities from housing, health, and mental and behavioral health sectors, we need the corporate, education and workforce sectors to engage in making sure that Angelenos have the skills and opportunities to earn living wages. And people who are experiencing homelessness need to have a voice and be agents of change.

Finally, we need to address and rectify the structural racism that drives inequities in our homeless population. African Americans are over represented in the homeless population by a factor of three, and homelessness among Latinos has been on the rise in recent years. The recently released report from LAHSA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black People Experiencing Homelessness provides a start to addressing the systemic racism in our systems that perpetuates homelessness.

We should feel good that we are making progress in housing more people who were homeless, but to actually solve this vexing problem, we need to take a long-term, comprehensive approach, balanced with the urgency necessary to solve it.

Bill Pitkin

Written by

Social equity advocate and collaborative leader who has worked in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles for more than 25 years