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Rise in homeless numbers called ‘staggering’

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors reacted June 6 to the reported 23 percent increase in homeless individuals countywide since 2016, with some calling the numbers “abysmal” and “staggering” and others seeking to reassure residents that solutions are ready to be rolled out.

The 2017 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count — released May 31 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — put the total of county homeless at 57,794. That’s up from 46,874 last year. Both calculations reflect a single point in time.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said she was particularly concerned about the 41 percent increase in the number of homeless children, 64 percent increase in the number of homeless youth between 18 and 24 years old and the 63 percent jump in homeless Latinos.

“The results of the homeless count are abysmal to say the least,” Solis said.

She asked Phil Ansell, director of Los Angeles County’s Homeless Initiative, to provide some context.

Ansell agreed that the results were “dismal,” but said the county was well prepared, having pulled together a comprehensive set of strategies to combat the problem.

“We will not be starting from scratch,” he told the board.

The county has a reliable funding source, based on a quarter-cent sales tax increase approved by voters in March. Money from the Measure H increase — expected to raise $355 million annually over the next 10 years — will start being collected July 1, Ansell said.

The board is set to consider a set of recommendations for spending the Measure H funds next week.

Solis suggested that the count data should help guide expenditures.

Ansell said breakdowns of the data were still being analyzed by staffers, but said board policy dictated that resources would follow need and that the recommendations already include a significant investment in services for transition-age youth.

The year-over-year changes in the number of people without a permanent home varied widely across eight service areas of the county, with East Los Angeles County and the Antelope Valley showing a 50 percent increase and the South Bay and San Fernando Valley with less than a 5 percent jump.

The increases came despite the fact that more than 14,214 homeless people moved into permanent housing in 2016.

As Solis noted, young residents were hit hardest, though those increases applied to a relatively small base. Nearly 60 percent of the homeless countywide are between 25 and 54 years old.

Other breakouts show that 28 percent more black residents are homeless this year. The relatively small group of Asian homeless, 607, represents a 31 percent uptick, while counts are down among white, Native American and multiracial individuals.

Ansell pointed out that part of the calculated increase in homeless children was due to a change in state law. A program that allowed families to stay in a motel for up to 16 days, originally restricted to once-in-a-lifetime use, is now available annually. That led more families to take advantage of motel vouchers and be counted among the homeless, Ansell said.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl pointed to rising housing costs as the reason for so many people living on the street.

The board asked staffers last month to survey housing stock and study the potential for shoring up renters’ rights. Though Solis said at the time that the focus on rights wasn’t about rent control, Kuehl pointed to a lack of rent control laws as part of the problem.

“Is it any wonder that all over the county rents have been rising and rising and rising because everybody wants to rent out their apartment at market rates?” she asked June 6. “We’ll stand here holding the [safety] net. And we will help those 20,000 people, maybe, this year … but we can’t keep the others from falling off the roof.”

The county is coordinating with city of Los Angeles officials in its fight against homelessness. The city will focus on building housing for the homeless while the county provides supportive services. City voters approved Measure HHH in November, which is expected to raise $1.2 billion in bonds for the construction of 10,000 units of housing.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who called the homeless count “staggering,” suggested that the county should be allotting land for affordable housing.

“If we don’t begin to build on our land and make those units affordable, then I don’t know how we can always keep requiring others to do that,” Hahn said.

Both Hahn and Supervisor Kathryn Barger said NIMBYism — shorthand for “not in my backyard” — was another obstacle to getting housing for the homeless built.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas struck an optimistic note.

“We have a challenge, but we have capacity. We have resources. And we have plans. This puts us in a pretty strong position to do good work,” Ridley-Thomas said.