LOS ANGELES — The nation’s homeless population increased this year for the first time since 2010, driven by a surge in the number of people living on the streets in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual Point in Time count Wednesday, a report that showed nearly 554,000 homeless people across the country during local tallies conducted in January. That figure is up nearly 1 percent from 2016.
Of that total, 193,000 people had no access to nightly shelter and instead were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other places considered uninhabitable. The unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago.
Increases are higher in several West Coast cities, where the explosion in homelessness has prompted at least 10 city and county governments to declare states of emergency since 2015.
“A lot of people in America don’t realize they might be two checks, three checks, four checks away from being homeless,” said Thomas Butler Jr., who stays in a tent in downtown Los Angeles.
City officials, homeless advocates and those living on the streets point to a main culprit: the region’s booming economy.
Rents have soared beyond affordability for many lower-wage workers who until just a just few years ago could typically find a place to stay. Now, even a temporary setback can be enough to leave them out on the streets.
“A lot of people in America don’t realize they might be two checks, three checks, four checks away from being homeless,” said Thomas Butler Jr., who stays in a carefully organized tent near a freeway ramp in downtown Los Angeles.
Butler said he was in transitional housing — a type of program that prepares people for permanent homes — for a while but mostly has lived on the streets for the past couple of years.
The numbers in the report back up what many people in California, Oregon and Washington have been experiencing in their communities: encampments sprouting along freeways and rivers; local governments struggling to come up with money for long-term solutions; conflicts over whether to crack down on street camping and even feeding the homeless.
The most alarming consequence of the West Coast homeless explosion is a deadly hepatitis A outbreak that has affected Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and San Diego, the popular tourist destination in a county where more than 5,600 people now live on the streets or in their cars. The disease is spread through a liver-damaging virus that lives in feces.
The outbreak prompted California officials to declare a state of emergency in October.
The HUD report underscores the severity of the problem along the West Coast.
While the overall homeless population in California, Oregon and Washington grew by 14 percent over the past two years, the part of that population considered unsheltered climbed 23 percent to 108,000. That is in part due a shortage of affordable housing.
In booming Seattle, for example, the HUD report shows the unsheltered population grew by 44 percent over two years to nearly 5,500.
The homeless service area that includes most of Los Angeles County, the epicenter of the crisis, saw its total homeless count top 55,000 people, up by more than 13,000 from 2016. Four out of every five homeless individuals there are considered unsheltered, leaving tens of thousands of people with no place to sleep other than the streets or parks.
By comparison, while New York City’s homeless population grew to more than 76,000, only about 5 percent are considered unsheltered thanks to a system that can get people a cot under a roof immediately.
In the West Coast states, the surge in homelessness has become part of the fabric of daily life.
The Monty, a bar in the Westlake neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, usually doesn’t open until 8 p.m. Partner and general manager Corey Allen said that’s because a nearby shelter requires people staying there to be in the building by 7. Waiting until after that to open means the streets outside are calmer.
Allen said the homeless have come into his bar to bathe in the restroom wash basins, and employees have developed a strategy for stopping people from coming in to panhandle among customers.
Seventy-eight-year-old Theodore Neubauer sees the other side of it. Neubauer says he served in Vietnam but now lives in a tent in downtown Los Angeles. He is surrounded by thriving business and entertainment districts, and new apartments that are attracting scores of young people to the heart of the nation’s second most populous city.
“Well, there’s a million-dollar view,” he said.
Helping those like Neubauer is a top policy priority and political issue in Los Angeles.
Since last year, voters in the city and Los Angeles County have passed a pair of tax-boosting ballot initiatives to raise an expected $4.7 billion over the next decade for affordable housing and services for the homeless. HUD Secretary Ben Carson praised the region for dealing with the issue and not relying solely on the federal government.
“We need to move a little bit away from the concept that only the government can solve the problem,” he said.
But Mayor Eric Garcetti said that insufficient federal funding for affordable housing and anti-homelessness programs are part of the reason for the city’s current crisis.
“Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis was not created in a vacuum, and it cannot be solved by L.A. alone,” Garcetti said in a statement.
Excluding the Los Angeles region, total homelessness nationwide would have been down by about 1.5 percent compared with 2016.
The California counties of Sacramento, which includes the state capital, and Alameda, which is home to Oakland, also had one-year increases of more than 1,000 homeless people.
In contrast, the HUD report showed a long-running decline in homelessness continuing in most other regions. Nationally, the overall homeless number was down by 13 percent since 2010 and the unsheltered number has dropped by 17 percent over that seven-year span, although some changes in methodology and definitions over the years can affect comparisons.
Places where the numbers went down included Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami, the Denver area and Hawaii, which declared a statewide homelessness emergency in 2015.
The homeless point-in-time survey is based on counts at shelters and on the streets. While imperfect, it attempts to represent how many people are homeless at a given time. Those who work regularly with the homeless say it is certainly an undercount, although many advocates and officials believe it correctly identifies trend lines.
The report is submitted to Congress and used by government agencies as a factor in distributing money for programs designed to help the homeless.
Mulvihill reported from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. AP videographer Krysta Fauria and photographer Jae Hong in Los Angeles contributed to this article.
America’s homeless population has risen this year for the first time since the Great Recession, propelled by the housing crisis afflicting the west coast, according to a new federal study.
The study has found that 553,742 people were homeless on a single night this year, a 0.7% increase over last year. It suggests that despite a fizzy stock market and a burgeoning gross domestic product, the poorest Americans are still struggling to meet their most basic needs.
“The improved economy is a good thing, but it does put pressure on the rental market, which does put pressure on the poorest Angelenos,” said Peter Lynn, head of the Los Angeles homelessness agency. The most dramatic spike in the nation was in his region, where a record 55,000 people were counted. “Clearly we have an outsize effect on the national homelessness picture.”
Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which produced the report, said in a statement: “This is not a federal problem – it’s everybody’s problem.”
Officials are due to announce the results on Wednesday morning.
Advocates who have witnessed the homelessness crisis unfold since it emerged in the early 1980s are grimly astonished by its persistence.
“I never in a million years thought that it would drag on for three decades with no end in sight,” said Bob Erlenbusch, who began working in Los Angeles in 1984.
The government mandates that cities and regions perform a homeless street count every two years, when volunteers fan out everywhere from frozen parks in Anchorage to palm-lined streets in Beverly Hills and enumerate people by hand. Those numbers are combined with the total staying in shelters and temporary housing. The tally is considered a crucial indicator of broad trends, but owing to the difficulties involved it is also widely regarded as an undercount.
“I’m surprised that [the numbers are] not going up faster than what that’s showing,” said John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
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There was an increase of 4.1% in New York. In the west, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Sacramento and Oakland all reported surges of varying sizes. Most of the increase across the country is driven by people living in doorways, tents and RVs as opposed to in shelters. People of color are dramatically overrepresented: African Americans make up over one-third of the number.
In one sense the prevalence of homelessness seems odd, because the national poverty rate has fallen to around the same level as before the recession. Yet homelessness is linked to economic growth. In some of the nation’s more desirable major cities, housing is rapidly appreciating to a point where it is out of reach for lower earners.
Median hourly wages in the US have barely budged for decades, from $16.74 in 1973 to $17.86 in 2016, in terms of 2016 dollars, according to the Economic Policy Institute. But in New York, for instance, the hourly wage required to comfortably rent a one-bedroom is $27.29. In Los Angeles, it is $22.98.
Vacancy rates in these cities are low, and construction of new homes is lagging. The state of California estimates that 180,000 new housing units are needed each year in order to keep up with population growth. Over the last decade, however, there was an annual average of less than 80,000 units, because developers often face a long review process and local opposition.
A vibrant state economy hasn’t “translated into a quality of life improvement for a lot of Californians”, said Sara Kimberlin, a senior analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. When housing costs are taken into account, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, at 20.4%.
Observers say that the federal government’s response to homelessness is lackluster.
Two decades ago, Erlenbusch said, he and colleagues “sat around the table and said, ‘We’re done in five years, it’s obvious what the answer is: affordable housing.’” But government investment in low-income homes has lagged since it was slashed during the Reagan administration, and today most people on the cusp of homelessness do not receive government rental assistance. Indeed, the government spends twice as much on a housing tax break for the wealthiest Americans, and the tax reforms under review by Congress would deal a further blow to affordable-housing funding if enacted.
US spends twice as much on tax break for rich as on rent for the poorest
Localities are left to improvise solutions. Los Angelenos voted to tax themselves to provide billions in funding. Tiny-home villages have taken root in Oregon and Washington state (though a plan to erect them in Silicon Valley was met recently by angry residents chanting “build a wall” to keep homeless residents out). Hawaii is pursuing the idea of authorized tent encampments.
Reflecting on the new count results, another longtime homeless expert, Washington DC social worker Julie Turner, spoke ruefully of her optimism of 30 years ago. Back then, homelessness in America seemed like it was only temporary.
“I thought that I was going to work myself out of a job.”
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