An Analysis of the Homelessness Crisis in Los Angeles
Author’s Note: this story was written in 2017 and updated in 2019. As such, the information within may no longer be accurate.
“A societal condition becomes a social problem when it draws the attention of a significant portion of the public. In that sense there can be little doubt that homelessness is currently a social problem in the United States” (Rossi 14).
Introduction: The History of Homelessness in the U.S.
The meaning of homelessness in the United States has changed over time. Prior to the Second World War, being “homeless” did not mean what it does today; “the homeless” referred to a subset of the population who were “transient laborers… adult males who lived outside normal family life” (Shlay and Rossi 131). These men were homeless in the sense that they lacked the traditional American home — a family and a fixed residence. But, “they had addresses and places in which to sleep” (Shlay and Rossi 131); they frequented “‘hobohemia’… where concentrations of single room occupancy hotels (SROs), boarding houses, inexpensive eating places, and spot labor employment agencies” (Shlay and Rossi 131) offered them places to sleep, eat, and work. Over time, these “hobohemias,” densely populated by single young men, came to be called by another name: skid rows.
In the era preceding World War II, the demand for inexpensive, transient labor ensured that skid rows were densely populated, and in a sense, thriving. As Park and Burgess put it: “the city offer[ed] a market for the… talents of individual men” (Park and Burgess 12). Yet in the era following the Second World War, “in most cities the skid-row population… [showed] a consistent decline” (Bahr 41). The demand for transient labor decreased, and with it came a wave of urban reform efforts. These “[u]rban renewal programs and housing market forces led to the demolition of most of the cheap skid row” housing (Shlay and Rossi 131). Yet, while skid rows were demolished, and although there was “more than a decade” of silence on the topic in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Shlay and Rossi 131), homelessness was not eradicated. Instead, it festered, until the homeless “began to increase and to spill out of the diminished skid rows” (Shlay and Rossi 131). Only then did homelessness begin to attract the attention — and the label as a “crisis” — that it holds today.
Whereas in the past, “being homeless” meant being without a stable family, the meaning today has evolved. In the modern era, to be homeless means to lack a place of permanent residence. The homeless of the early 1900s may not have had homes, but they had houses (the difference being the comfort of a family that makes a “house” a “home”). But today, the homeless lack housing altogether, and are forced to live in the street or to seek accommodation in temporary shelters. As the demand for transient labor fell in the post-war era, more and more individuals — mostly single men — took to the streets. And as urban renewal projects eradicated “hobohemias,” these men found themselves with fewer and fewer places to stay. Eventually, as inexpensive skid-row housing became less and less viable, “public notice of the homeless became inevitable” (Shlay and Rossi 131). In the 1980s, homelessness “climbed to the top of the national agenda of social issues” (Lee 323). This public outcry over homelessness was fueled in part by the precipitous growth of the problem: “estimated growth rates for some places exceed[ed] 25 percent a year” (Lee 323). Since that time, the problem has only worsened: today, it ranks among the most pressing issues in American civics and politics. This paper examines the epicenter of the American homelessness crisis: Los Angeles. I determine the extent and the demographics of the problem in Los Angeles, and analyze several proposed solutions. In doing so, I seek to provide a model for analysis of the American homelessness crisis as a whole.
The Los Angeles Homelessness Crisis
As one of the largest cities in the United States, it is unsurprising that Los Angeles should have one the worst homelessness crises in the country. This assumption is supported by the data: a 1987 study estimated that L.A. had “approximately 35,000 to 50,000 homeless persons” (Wood et al., 1). More recent figures from the 2017 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority count cited the homeless total at 57,794 in L.A. County and 34,189 in L.A. proper (LAHSA Homeless Count, 10–18). Even more worrisome than the raw numbers are the growth rates: homelessness is up twenty-three percent in both L.A. County and L.A. City in the last year alone (LAHSA Homeless Count, 10–18). As this evidence indicates, Los Angeles is in the midst of a consequential homelessness crisis.
The size of the City and County of Los Angeles — 3.98 and 10.1 million respectively (U.S. Census Bureau) — are not the only explanation for the extent of the Los Angeles homelessness crisis. Another explanation for the severity of homelessness in Los Angeles is that housing costs in Los Angeles are extremely steep. According to the 2016 Los Angeles Quality of Life Index, housing costs are the single largest issue in the County of Los Angeles: “residents from all income groups (emphasis added) are not satisfied with the cost of housing” (L.A. County Quality of Life Index 2016, 18–19). For lower- and middle-class residents of L.A., housing costs are often an obstacle to success; for the homeless in L.A, housing costs can be an insurmountable barrier to permanent places of residence.
While the nearly 58,000 homeless individuals in L.A. County account for less than one percent of the L.A. population (U.S. Census Bureau), significantly more of the residents of Los Angeles have concerns about becoming homeless. Of the 1,401 residents surveyed in the Los Angeles County Quality of Life Index, thirty-one percent indicated that, in the last few years, they had worried about losing their home, and as a result, becoming homeless (L.A. County Quality of Life Index, 24). For those residents who earn less than $30,000 annually, these concerns were even larger: fifty-nine percent said that they feared becoming homeless (L.A. County Quality of Life Index, 28–29). If a condition becomes a problem when, as Peter Rossi says, “a significant portion of the public” are concerned about it (Rossi 14), the L.A. County Quality of Life Index leaves little room for doubt: homelessness in Los Angeles is a problem, one that affects or concerns nearly a third of the populace.
Proposed Solutions to the L.A. Homelessness Crisis
Given the breadth of the homelessness problem in Los Angeles, the City and County of L.A. have strong incentives to invest resources in abating the problem. In the last year, elected officials introduced two measures aimed at mitigating homeless: Measure H and Measure HHH. Both measures required a two-thirds supermajority vote to pass, and both were successful, accruing 69.34 and 77.14 percent of the vote, respectively (Los Angeles County Elections Office). The following section analyzes both measures with concern to their funding, their implementation, and their foreseeable effectiveness at resolving the homelessness crisis in L.A.
Measure H is a 0.25 percent sales tax, to be levied on all sales in the County of Los Angeles. The measure passed in March 2017 and is expected to last for ten years, with “independent annual audits” (Consolidated Municipal and Special Elections Ballot, 1). The funds from the sales tax are estimated to be $355 million annually, according to the L.A. Times. These funds will go towards
mental health [and] substance abuse treatment, health care, education, job training, rental and housing subsidies, case management and services, emergency and affordable housing, transportation, outreach, prevention, and supportive services for homeless children, families, foster youth, veterans, battered women, seniors, disabled individuals, and other homeless adults (Consolidated Municipal and Special Elections Ballot, 1).
An argument in support of Measure H, which was included on the ballot, stated that this menagerie of services and subsidies will “enable 45,000 families/individuals to exit homelessness into permanent housing and help an additional 30,000 families/individuals avoid homelessness” (Official Sample Ballot, 18). In part, this is because the funding will be not just reactive, but proactive. That is to say that the services provided by Measure H funding will enable individuals to find the support necessary to keep them from falling into a cycle of poverty, drug abuse, and mental illness that can cause homelessness to change from a temporary issue to a permanent identifier. Previous surveys of the homeless population in Los Angeles indicate that “supportive services” like the mental health and substance abuse programs funded by Measure H are critical when it comes to resolving widespread homelessness. One such survey conducted in 1990 indicated the following discrepancies between the housed and homeless population: eighteen percent greater rates of spousal abuse, thirteen percent higher rates of drug/alcohol abuse, and eight percenter greater rates of severe mental health issues (Wood et al., 1050). Another study, conducted in 1988, estimated that “28% of subjects [in Los Angeles]… were chronically mentally ill” (Koegel et al., 1085). These figures show a demonstrable need for the support structures created by Measure H.
While preventative services for drug abuse and mental illness are undoubtedly important in reducing homelessness, the primary contributing factor to homelessness — particularly in Los Angeles — is unequivocal: housing costs. In fact, the same 1990 study that indicated drug abuse, spousal abuse, and mental illness as serious issues within the homeless population of L.A. stated the following: “the most common contributing factors to the loss of permanent housing among our sample of homeless families were high housing costs and family poverty” (Wood et al., 1052). As Wood et al. note, before becoming homeless, “families [in L.A.] were expending such high proportions of their income on housing that they had few resources remaining to meet other basic necessities such as food and clothing” (Wood et al., 1052). How high exactly were these proportions of rent-to-income? The authors note that “rent-to-income ratios of 60 to 80 percent” were not uncommon among their sample group (Wood et al., 1052). As a result of dramatic rent-to-income ratios like those found by Wood et al., and in response to the L.A. County Quality of Life Index’s finding that housing costs are the single largest issue for families in Los Angeles, L.A. County officials introduced Measure HHH, which passed in November 2016.
The primary purpose of Measure HHH is to create and sustain affordable housing complexes, which will keep individuals from becoming homeless as a result of otherwise unsustainable rent-to-income ratios. The funding mechanism by which the City of L.A. will pay for housing complexes is a series of general obligation bonds. These bonds total $1.2 billion dollars, but will be payed out in “10 series over time ranging from approximately $30 million to $210 million per series” (Voter Information Pamphlet, November 2016 Election, 7). As the Voter Information Pamphlet notes, the tax burden for the $1.2 billion in bonds comes out to an “estimated average annual tax rate… [of] $0.0096 per every $100 of assessed valuation… [or] $9.64 per every $100,000 of assessed valuation” (Voter Information Pamphlet, November Election, 7). This tax burden will provide an estimated “13,000 units of new housing, including 10,000 units of supportive housing” (Voter Information Pamphlet, November 2016 Election, 8). Even more than the supportive services provided by Measure H, it is the supportive housing funded by Measure HHH that will have the greatest impact upon the homeless population in Los Angeles.
The Voter Information Pamphlet from the November 2016 Election defines supportive housing as “units for individuals and families who are homeless or chronically homeless and… extremely low income” (8). While individual units will certainly provide aid, it is the family units funded by Measure HHH that will do the most good. This is because the demographics of the homeless population have changed over the last few decades. From 1984 to 1988, for example, “the proportion of shelter beds reserved for homeless families grew from 21% to 40%” (Shlay and Rossi 136). This shift reflects the fact that as of 1987, fifty-one percent of the U.S. homeless were women and children (Shlay and Rossi 135). More recent data in Los Angeles supports the continuation of this trend: women “account for 61% of the increase [in the L.A. homeless population] since 2013” (Voter Information Pamphlet, November 2016 Election, 12). As women and children continue to comprise the majority of the homeless population, supportive housing like the units funded by Measure HHH will become the single most important part of the strategy in ending homelessness in L.A., even more important than the services provided by the Measure H sales tax.
Homelessness in Los Angeles is, in the words of Los Angeles City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, “a growing problem that threatens the public health, safety, and welfare of the residents [of the County of Los Angeles]”. In a letter to the mayors of the South Bay cities, Councilmember Buscaino noted that not only has homelessness “increased 12% in Los Angeles County over the past two years [2013–2015]… the number of tents, makeshift shelters, and encampments has grown by an astronomical 85% over the same period” (Buscaino). As Buscaino implies, the homelessness problem in Los Angeles is not just an issue of individuals without resources, it is a problem of space.
In their 2017 Homelessness Count, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority noted that the number of tents in the city was up by twenty percent (2,342 tents) and the number of makeshift shelters was up by twenty-three percent (3,516 shelters). As this data suggests, the housing projects funded by Measure HHH are of paramount importance. The 10,000 units of supportive housing introduced by the measure represent the most realistic chance of mitigating the severity of the homelessness problem in L.A. But, critics of the measure have been quick to call it inadequate: as they argue, “[t]he City doesn’t have a comprehensive plan other than to throw our cash at the problem” (Argument Against Proposition HHH, November 2016 Election Pamphlet, 14). As the critics note, the “primary beneficiaries” of the general obligation bonds are not needy homeless individuals, but rather, “politically well-connected apartment developers,” who will receive funding to construct supportive housing (Argument Against Proposition HHH, November 2016 Election Pamphlet, 14). These attacks on Measure HHH raise the question: is this really the most effective way of combating homelessness in L.A.?
I conclude that while criticisms of Measure HHH raise valid concerns, they fail to contextualize the measure’s effectiveness by examining it in tandem with the services provided by Measure H. That is to say that, while neither Measure H nor Measure HHH are infallible, they complement each other, fulfilling what the other lacks. Measure HHH provides 13,000 units of housing in response to the dramatic increase in the homeless population since 2016 alone (23%), and in response to the resulting scarcity of spaces in which to shelter the homeless. This housing is particularly important because, as noted above, a significant portion of the L.A. homeless population are women and families, many of whom are at risk of sexual, spousal, or parental abuse. (According to LAHSA, the percentage of L.A. homeless who are women is at 31%.) What Measure HHH fails to provide, however, are services like substance abuse treatment and job training. These are the supportive services funded by Measure H. These services are crucial because, as determined by LAHSA’s 2017 Homelessness Count, thirty percent of the Los Angeles homeless have a serious mental illness, and eighteen percent have a serious substance abuse disorder. For these individuals, then, the services provided by Measure H are a critical step in the road towards exiting homelessness.
The two measures passed by the citizens of the County of Los Angeles in 2016 and 2017 represent a legitimate effort towards eradicating homelessness in Los Angeles. Measure HHH comes as an answer to the need for spaces to house the homeless — and as the official argument in favor of Measure HHH notes, “over 85% of people placed in permanent supportive housing stay permanently housed” (Voter Information Pamphlet, November 2016 Election, 14). Measure H, meanwhile, answers the need to provide a support structure for the homeless, many of whom are chronically mentally ill, suffer from substance abuse disorders, or are at risk of abuse. Measure H allocates $355 million in supportive services that create such a support structure, ensuring that homeless individuals can not only find housing through Measure HHH, but moreover, can find the help that they need to assimilate into the workforce and avoid returning to the streets. In an era in which homelessness is rapidly becoming a national epidemic, the two measures passed by the City and County of Los Angeles represent a promising effort to stymie the problem before it gets any worse. As homelessness continues to plague other cities around the U.S., they may soon turn to Los Angeles for answers.
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