Out of mind but in plain sight: Homelessness in Los Angeles

“I’ve been working down here as a volunteer since I was 14 years old, and 30 years later it doesn’t look better. It looks worse.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s words carry across a packed crowd gathered on Jan. 28 in the Los Angeles Mission, a nonprofit organization that serves the homeless residents of Skid Row. He acknowledges that homelessness in Los Angeles is a more pressing problem than ever before. At the same time, he praises the city government for stepping up and taking action, from funding outreach programs to hiring case workers.

And yet, outside the gates of the L.A. Mission where Garcetti speaks, tents on the sidewalk go up as 2,500 people prepare to spend tonight — like every other night — on the streets.

Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

Over the past year, Los Angeles has grown to contain the nation’s largest chronically homeless population and experienced the country’s greatest spike in homelessness. While the rest of the country saw homeless populations flatline — and several major cities reduced their figures — Los Angeles outpaced New York’s chronic homelessness increase 3 to 1.

In response, lawmakers ushered in a series of actions targeting homelessness in 2016. On Jan. 4, California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León and a group of state senators announced a $2 billion legislative package to build affordable housing for mentally ill and chronically homeless individuals.

Los Angeles’ homeless population did not appear overnight. Research shows that a combination of factors including mental illness, unemployment and skyrocketing rents drove the city to a point where the government had to take action. Garcetti’s words came just days after the announcement of new government initiatives to “find a way to get [people] off the street,” no matter the cost.

The recent moves on the part of government bodies, however, have left researchers, organizers and others working in the field wondering why the issue was allowed to expand until it reached a breaking point. Ultimately, many question whether these initiatives will truly address the underlying causes of homelessness among thousands of people for whom Los Angeles is not a home but a vacant spot where a home should be.

Skimming the surface

In the past few years, Los Angeles has tried to keep up with the growing needs of its homeless residents. Numerous nonprofits and government organizations work to house people living without shelter and provide food and medical services to the city’s homeless population. In 1993, the city even established a specific government bureau — the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — and provided it with an annual budget of $70 million.

The problem is that these services aren’t working. The combined efforts of public, private and nonprofit organizations have failed to reduce homelessness in the past year and have in fact allowed it to reach a point where one out of every 253 people in the city lacks permanent housing.


Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

According to John Kelly, the outreach coordinator for the L.A. Mission, the issue was not that the government didn’t take action in recent years, but that the solutions it pursued were not effective. He explained that current government systems prioritize those labeled “chronically homeless,” who have lived without permanent housing for at least one year.

Eighty percent of the people on Skid Row don’t meet this criteria, Kelly said. This means that the chance of helping someone through early intervention and preventing chronic homelessness in the first place is lost.

“If I have someone who has just lost their employment, or someone that’s in between jobs, they’re not eligible for me to house or help,” Kelly said. “Why do people have to get to the point where they’re chronically homeless before they can get help?”

As a result, the overall number of homeless individuals has grown even as the government has devoted extra resources to housing and other forms of assistance. Channeling resources into avenues that don’t actually work to solve homelessness, according to Kelly, has neglected more important areas like the need for increased funding for homeless families.

“Nobody wants to treat that situation,” Kelly said. “The money is in single-room occupancy housing, not housing for families. You can’t have kids in those places, and most women who need them still have family ties.”

Out of 12 shelters for battered women in Los Angeles, according to Kelly, eight were not refunded this year. Because these shelters house women and children who are often fleeing domestic violence and would otherwise become homeless, closing them down adds to the number of people living without permanent housing. And in the future, homeless children are more likely to live on the streets than to be placed in a housing program, becoming the next generation of homeless adults as time goes on.

Seth Kurzban, a clinical associate professor at the USC School of Social Work, agrees that the city has misused its resources. However, he believes that the spike in homelessness ties back to the inadequate treatment of mental illness in the homeless community.

Kurzban has been working to increase social integration for homeless individuals with severe mental illness since 1996. That task, Kurzban said, is crucial because this group makes up only one-third of the homeless population but requires 75 percent of the resources available.

“People dealing with a serious mental illness need far more of those services and take up far more of those resources,” Kurzban said. “Helping that population helps the entire homeless population because then those resources that get concentrated in this one segment can be redistributed across the entire swath of homelessness.”

An unanswered question

John Kelly understands the struggle to allocate resources better than most.

Kelly spent 17 years on Skid Row, moving in and out of temporary housing while struggling with drug addiction. When he first became homeless after losing his job working for the city of Los Angeles, Kelly had hope that he would soon find permanent housing or employment through a government program. But as time went on, no one reached out to help him get off the streets for good.

Instead, Kelly said, what government services there were only enabled his drug addiction. And what started out as a temporary setback turned into a decades-long experience with chronic homelessness.

“You can be on drugs and not realize how long you’ve been on them,” Kelly said. “If it’s convenient, like it was here, years can pass.”

In November 2015, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 12,536 people in Los Angeles County were chronically homeless, living without permanent housing for at least a year. These figures mark a 55 percent increase since 2013 and rise to 40,000 people when counting everyone who is currently homeless, no matter how long they have been on the streets.

Kelly is among those who believe that drug addiction is the primary cause of the increase in homelessness. As the L.A. Mission’s outreach coordinator, he has helped more than 200 people on Skid Row overcome their addictions and find permanent housing over the past six years. Many of the people he works with, however, continue using even if they are offered a place to live.

“We’re definitely not winning the war on drugs,” Kelly said. “And you will never be able to reduce the homeless count without addressing drugs — it goes hand-in-hand.”

Data from the Community Epidemiology Work Group shows that in 2013, 16.6 percent of all people admitted for drug abuse treatment were homeless at the time of admission. In comparison, homeless individuals formed only 0.39 percent of the overall population. And with an increase in the use of drugs such as heroin — emergency visits for which rose 68 percent between 2005 and 2013 — more people are finding themselves in the same situation as the people Kelly assists.

According to Kelly, however, most of the funding and services aimed at ending homelessness are enabling the problem instead. The push from governments and nonprofit organizations has been to target the mentally ill, but Kelly believes that providing access to prescription pills leads to a lack of incentive to stop using and get off the streets.

“People can come down here and live with functional drug behavior, where it’s supported,” Kelly said. “[Los Angeles is] the best choice for homeless people because we have the best homeless system in the world.”

Benjamin Henwood, however, sees a lack of affordable housing, and not drug addiction, as the biggest driving force behind homelessness in Los Angeles. Henwood, an assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work, pointed out that with a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent, the housing that Los Angeles offers simply can’t accommodate the people that live there.

As a result, Henwood said, rising prices unfairly discriminate against those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“Traditionally, we have approached homelessness as an issue that happens to an individual because of their choices, and in order to correct that and get out of it, people need to address their issues,” Henwood said. “Because of that, we’ve designed a system where we expected people to go into treatment settings, and if they were successful, we would help them get housing. But what people really need is a place to stay — a home.”

A study by the Furman Center found that while rents went up 11 percent between 2006 and 2013, wages fell by 4 percent over the same time period. The resulting gap meant that fewer people were able to afford the rising cost of living in Los Angeles, an issue that Henwood says is central to understanding homelessness in the city.

“Los Angeles is an extreme example of income inequality and wealth disparity,” Henwood said. “There are houses being sold for $100 million in Los Angeles County, at the same time as the government announced that it would spend $100 million to address the problem of homelessness that affects 44,000 people. These disparities are problematic.”


Kenn Stokes volunteers at the L.A. Mission, an organization that serves the homeless population of Skid Row. Joseph Chen | Daily Trojan

For Kenn Stokes, a volunteer at the L.A. Mission who’s worked with homeless individuals for 11 years, the economic gap Henwood described has only grown worse in recent years.

After the 2008 recession, Stokes saw the number of guests at the L.A. Mission increase drastically.

“We were packed because people found themselves losing their homes and were out on the streets,” Stokes said. “They didn’t have resources like family members or other agencies.”

This lack of resources, Stokes said, exacerbated the problem of chronic homelessness in particular. Year after year, he saw the same individuals returning to the L.A. Mission, as skyrocketing rents drove them onto the streets and a shortage of permanent, affordable housing kept them there.

And when the government did step up, it channeled its resources into temporary solutions that stemmed the flow of temporary homelessness, but left the underlying problems unsolved.

Searching for solutions

The solutions enacted by the city and county governments worked, for a while, because they addressed a temporary need. Los Angeles County saw its chronically homeless population drop 65 percent between 2005 and 2013 after the construction of temporary housing and increased funding for mental health services got large numbers of people off the streets.

It wasn’t until 2015’s 55 percent increase in chronic homelessness that legislators realized these temporary solutions couldn’t support long-term change.

The state government also plans to invest $200 million over four years to provide shorter-term supportive housing while permanent housing is constructed elsewhere.

Three days later, Los Angeles County officials released a comprehensive Homeless Initiative, which contained 47 strategies for combatting homelessness.

These are divided into six categories: preventing homelessness, subsidizing housing costs, increasing income, providing case management and services, creating a coordinated system and increasing affordable housing.

The plan has an estimated cost of $149.7 million and was approved by the County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 9. The first of its three phases will implement about a dozen of the Homeless Initiative strategies by June 30, while Phase 2 will take place in the second half of 2016 and Phase 3 will begin in 2017.

L.A. City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who serves as co-chair of the city’s homelessness and poverty committee, believes that these steps address a critical need.

“To combat this crisis, we need to create a citywide strategic plan to ameliorate the multitude of issues affecting our Angelenos living on the streets,” Harris-Dawson wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “We need to increase financial stability and job opportunities as well as providing better integration of services throughout the City and County to ensure people have the support they need to get back onto their feet.”

Others, however, see the initiatives as a starting point rather than a comprehensive solution. Among these is Jeremy Sidell, the chief development and communications officer for PATH, a shelter and outreach organization dedicated to finding permanent housing for homeless individuals and families.

“We’ve seen a lot of positive change in terms of much greater involvement on the party of local, city and county governments,” Sidell said. “But the only way to end homelessness is to put people in homes. So until we’re able to solve the crisis around affordable housing and to commit to moving people who are currently living on the streets, we’ll continue to be challenged by homelessness in our community.”

Tent city · Every night, thousands of people set up tents on the sidewalk to seek temporary shelter from the elements, such as below this freeway overpass on 39th Street. Government programs attempting to address homelessness have channeled resources into supporting single-room occupancy housing, which has left many women and children without homes. Hawken Miller | Daily Trojan

Tent city · Every night, thousands of people set up tents on the sidewalk to seek temporary shelter from the elements, such as below this freeway overpass on 39th Street. Government programs attempting to address homelessness have channeled resources into supporting single-room occupancy housing, which has left many women and children without homes.
Hawken Miller | Daily Trojan

One such solution, according to Henwood, may be Housing First, a national model for addressing homelessness that has been used successfully in several major U.S. cities, and most recently was able to reduce chronic homelessness in the state of Utah.

Housing First, Henwood explained, reverses the traditional approach toward homelessness. Instead of waiting until people have gone through rehabilitation programs to provide them with housing, Housing First starts with placing people in permanent homes.

As a result, they can feel free to pursue the activities that will lift them out of the cycle of homelessness, such as getting a job or seeking mental health counseling.

“If you think about what your life is like day-to-day, I think most of us take for granted that we wake up in the same place every morning and that we have a refrigerator where we can get food,” Henwood said. “They’re pretty mundane things, but if you lack any of those, it’s really hard to concentrate on getting to work on time or following through with an appointment when you’re worried about where to get your next meal.”

The initiative has been adopted by several major organizations, including Sidell’s PATH and projects such as Home For Good. However, Los Angeles as a city hasn’t made Housing First its official policy and hasn’t made any indications that it plans to in the future.

This refusal to act makes Henwood and others feel like the recent string of government initiatives won’t create comprehensive change, despite their multi-billion dollar price tag.

An issue of attitude

For some researchers, solving homelessness isn’t about the money at all.

Kurzban believes that many of the issues behind government approaches toward homelessness result from an attitude that punishes people for being homeless instead of helping them.

“Not much has changed since [I started working in] 1996,” Kurzban said. “People still approach the homeless as ‘the unworthy poor’ — we want them to prove that they are ready to get resources, and that really exacerbates the number of people living on the street. We are still operating on a system that works piece by piece, and as a result has not addressed the greater need.”

Stokes agrees that individual mindsets about homelessness color official policy. But he sees a way to change those attitudes by recognizing the mutual humanity that exists between those who have permanent housing and those who don’t.

“These people are not a lost cause,” Stokes said. “And they think that society has given up on them, but sometimes people deserve a second and third and fourth chance.”

For the people that set up their tents outside the L.A. Mission every night, that chance could mean the difference between having a hot meal and going hungry. Many who haven’t been homeless for very long are optimistic that the government will help them receive mental health treatment, drug counseling, employment or housing. Those who have spent years on the streets are less hopeful.

Maybe some of them hear Garcetti’s speech as it filters through the gates that bar them from entering the L.A. Mission outside of designated meal times. But even if they do, few think it will make a difference — what does $100 million mean to someone who can’t afford to pay that month’s rent?

Instead, 2,500 residents of Skid Row unfold their poles and spread out their tarps as the sun goes down.