Checking the Math. How Many Homeless are There in LA … Really?

DEEGAN ON LA-Part of the bigger conversation about the homeless in Los Angeles is just how many there are?

Everyday optics suggest they now live in most communities. We see them on sidewalks across the city, sometimes one at a time, but more often in small groups and even in tent clusters. 

Last year at this time, over 8,500 volunteers and community services providers helped to perform the annual “Homeless Count,”  according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). 

The topline statistic of that effort was 52,765 homeless individuals counted, a 4% decrease from the previous year, which looks pretty good. The spoiler to this math is that eight years ago, LAHSA reports that there were 38,717 homeless counted. So, even with last year’s dip, the long-term trend has been a growth in the homeless population.

Mayor Garcetti’s advocating for finding solutions to homelessness through “bridge housing” and using monies from Props H and HHH for affordable housing, has resulted in some success. But the LAHSA stat that should concern the Mayor and LA residents, is that the number of homeless in his first five years in office has increased by  33% -- from 39,461 in 2013 to the recent count of 52,765. 

Despite his good efforts, Garcetti looks like the mythological Greek King Sisyphus trying to push the boulder uphill, only to have it endlessly roll back down over him. Hopefully, for Los Angeles, the Mayor will turn the corner, rather than be crushed by the homeless issue.

The plunge in affordable housing in the past few years may have contributed to the homeless population numbers. The Mayor and his City Council colleagues are allies in the institutionalized “pay for play” culture at City Hall that puts profits ahead of people. Housing developers who wear second hats as campaign financiers and are the third wheel in the Mayor-Councilmember collaboration, are becoming part of the city’s “1 percent.” Those who have been forced out of their homes by developers may be part of the LASHA stats report -- a dark side of the homeless issue. 

“Seventy-five and sunny” could be the motto for Los Angeles, and our perfect Mediterranean climate must have something to do with how many homeless are here. Where else can homeless people be assured of a generally mild and dry home on the streets? 

The abundance of free food available to help support homeless people may be another contributing factor to the continuum of life on the streets. Has there ever been a reported case of a homeless person starving to death in LA? 

Prioritized triage for the mentally ill, if they accept it, is a huge part of the solution in moving this most vulnerable population off the streets. Lucky for them when they say “yes.” 

Substance abusers, either using drugs or alcohol or both, may be proportionate to that category in general society. Like their counterparts in comfy homes, affected homeless people have a wide range of free recovery programs -- if they choose to take advantage of them. 

Finally, what about the “asphalt cowboys,” the freewheeling homeless who know how to and choose to live off the grid? 

Profiling the homeless is much more nuanced than what may be the typical view of those who observe this down and out population taking up space in a public place. 

The 2019 Street Count will take place on January 22, 23 & 24. Its campaign slogan is compelling: They count, will you?” To sign up, go to https://www.theycountwillyou.org/ .


(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.