Homelessness is biggest problem facing Los Angeles, residents say, and it's projected to get worse

LOS ANGELES – The influencers rarely include homeless people in their frames. But when the phones are put away, Angelenos invariably end up discussing the tens of thousands of people living in squalor on the street, often just steps from LA's iconic tourist sites.

The city known for its glitz and glamour has the nation's largest population of people living in places not meant for human habitation, like streets, parks and cars, and under freeway overpasses, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority – beating out New York City, which is required by law to provide enough beds for its unhoused.

Homelessness is top of mind for Angelenos, according to a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, which found 47% of residents believe it's the biggest problem facing the city.

"I'm shocked it's anything less than 75%, frankly," said Los Angeles Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents wealthy coastal neighborhoods and faces a recall election partly as a result of the crisis. "Anywhere I go in the city of Los Angeles, it's the No. 1 issue on people's minds, regardless of neighborhood, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of race."

The city has struggled to help its homeless people because of a housing shortage, bureaucratic and zoning issues, and a NIMBY sentiment that makes it hard to find a place to build temporary and permanent housing. The pandemic has only made it worse.

Historically the city's largest population of homeless people has been located near social services in downtown's Skid Row, Venice Beach and Hollywood. Now it has spread to areas such as Brentwood and Bel Air.

LA has a high cost of living, a high share of low-wage workers and a lack of affordable housing, so the city is more likely to produce homelessness than the rest of California or the U.S., said Dan Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit research group. 

The median value for a single-family home in the city is more than $1 million.

The number of homeless people grew to 41,290 in 2020, according to the official pre-pandemic count – a 16% increase from 2019.

The Economic Roundtable projects the homeless population in the city to rise about 80% between 2020 and 2023, to 74,735 – largely because of financial hardships tied to the pandemic, Flaming said. (The 2021 count was canceled because of public health concerns.) 

"Underneath all the stuff homeless get blamed (for) is a real sense of dread in the middle class, or what’s left of it, that, 'Hey, one of these days this could be me, too – one pandemic, job loss, whatever,'" said Tony Butka, a community activist in northeast Los Angeles.

Homelessness has grown across the U.S. over the past decade, said Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. But she said policy changes at the federal and state level, including the decision in 1967 by California Gov. Ronald Reagan to stop committing people to mental institutions against their will or for indefinite amounts of time, led to more people in the criminal justice system and on the street.

"For every 30 affordable units or vouchers, there are 100 people who need it," Marston said. "And that's the whole West Coast. So this is just musical chairs at a really, really gross and disturbing scale." 

Street conditions for homeless people are filthy and often lack necessities like toilets and sinks, in part because officials don't want to "legitimize people's survival efforts and grant permanence" to them, Flaming said. "In a lot of ways, our responses perpetuate the problem." 

Homeless people as the 'other'

Stephanie Antoinette Lechuga, 33, doesn't believe any one thing led to her homelessness. It was a snowball effect: being sexually abused by a family member as a child, regularly skipping school, struggling with addiction.

Lechuga, who responded to the poll, said in an interview that she has been homeless nearly a decade. She has couch-surfed with family and lived in a car and in a dry riverbed. Her 3-year-old son was placed in the foster system and has since been adopted.

"Once you're homeless, people turn away. They're embarrassed," Lechuga said. 

Three months ago she was tired of living outside. Because she is asthmatic and considered vulnerable to COVID-19, she moved to a Project Roomkey unit. It's provided on a temporary basis, so Lechuga is worried about what will happen next. She said the wait for Section 8 housing is years long. 

Lechuga said she believes education is the biggest issue facing Los Angeles, not homelessness. If she had gone to school more, she said, perhaps her life would have turned out differently.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 553,000 people experienced homelessness on any given night in 2018. Los Angeles County is just one of several areas across the country that, with the help of nonprofit organizations and developers, has begun renovating or leasing motel rooms as a way to lift up its homeless population. The Reno Motel in Los Angeles is one of them.

For people who become homeless, Flaming said, "wreckage accumulates," such as physical and mental health problems, substance abuse, arrests and disconnection. It gets progressively harder to rejoin the mainstream community.

Who are the city's homeless?

There's an urban myth among Angelenos that many homeless people are here from other states because the living is easy, the weather is good, and they'll get lots of free stuff.

But the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has found that roughly 70% to 90% of homeless people in LA became homeless here, and they've lived in the area for more than 10 to 15 years, Marston said.

The homeless services authority estimates more than 60% of homeless people in the county have cycled through the criminal justice system. Some homeless people were foster kids who turned 18 or came from other vulnerable populations. Others can't afford rent and commute from their tents to their jobs. Black people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population, according to the homeless services authority.

Pedestrians walk past a homeless encampment just outside Grand Park in Los Angeles in 2020.

"I know their stories. They didn’t come (here) because of mental health or drugs. They lost a job, got evicted, were sexual assault and domestic violence victims, and then they started medicating," said Carol Sobel, a longtime advocate for the rights of homeless people.

LAPD's show of force at Echo Park Lake

When Mansoor Khan, 43, saw the police helicopters overhead, cruisers speeding down the street and officers lining the streets around Echo Park Lake, he felt scared, like he was back in high school in Karachi, Pakistan.

"It felt like an occupying force was coming into the neighborhood," Khan said.

Demonstrators face off with police in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, March 25, 2021. Demonstrators gathered Wednesday night to protest the planned temporary closure of a Los Angeles park that would displace a large homeless encampment, which has grown throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, roughly 750 Los Angeles police officers were deployed to close Echo Park Lake, which had become a large homeless encampment, to clean and fix it up.

The poll found LA residents were split on whether police have responded appropriately in removing unhoused people from public parks and sidewalks, with 40% saying yes and 42% saying no. 

Khan, who now chairs his neighborhood council, believes housing is a human right. While canvassing, he was shocked to learn that many people who donated to Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign were in favor of sweeping the encampment away.

"We heard, 'Why can’t we just move them into a camp on the outskirts of the city?'" Khan said.

Los Angeles police officers push demonstrators off Glendale Boulevard, on the Echo Park Lake perimeter in Los Angeles early Thursday, March 25, 2021. Officers managed to corral demonstrators gathered Wednesday to protest the planned closure of the park, which would displace a large homeless encampment that has grown throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The park will be closed for repairs. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Six months later, four of the 183 homeless people removed that day have obtained permanent housing, 11 are still in temporary housing, and 65 are in shelters, said homeless services authority spokesman Chris Yee.

Dan Halden, a spokesman for Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, who represents the area, said the park wasn't safe. Four people died there last year, he said, including an 18-year-old woman who overdosed.

Complaints in Venice Beach

Vicki Halliday, 72, said she avoids walking alone after dark, even a few blocks, in LA's Venice neighborhood because of all the homeless people.

"I don't blame them for coming out here," Halliday said. It's "much more pleasant to eat your croissant looking at the ocean than look at the stuff downtown" where Skid Row is.

Like many of her neighbors, she blames the city for not doing more.

Halliday rents an apartment one and a half blocks from Venice Beach and attributes the rise in crime to homeless people gathering around a new transitional housing center that faced widespread opposition from residents.

Members of the Los Angeles homeless community take up temporary residence under a bridge near 4th Avenue and Santa Fe, Wednesday, June 17, 1987, apparently trespassing on railroad land rather than living in the homeless camp created by the city for them just 50 feet away.

People have camped in her yard and tried to break into nearby homes, Halliday said. Police had to come deal with "fence jumpers" who trapped her inside her apartment.

"You sleep with one ear sort of open," she said. "It's permeated every single part of our lives." 

Halliday, who sits on the neighborhood council and a regional homeless committee, said she has seen her neighbors grow more strident about the city's homelessness problem.

A liberal neighbor in the tech industry who moved from New York has slowly shifted "to the right of moderate" over the last year because of concerns about homelessness and inaction by the city, she said.

She said the city needs to open mental hospitals and force people to enter drug rehabilitation. Bonin believes homeless people need shelter while they get help.

He noted the city's successful effort this summer helping 213 people living on the Venice Beach boardwalk get housing after weeks of intense outreach. The vast majority are in temporary housing, he said, and 33 have received permanent housing.

A change in tactics

After losing and settling lawsuits for decades, the city has tried to move away from dealing with homelessness through legislation and enforcement.

Those lawsuits have enabled homeless people to camp overnight on sidewalks if the city lacks enough housing for them. The city can no longer cap the amount of property that homeless people accumulate.

When the pandemic hit, shelters were forced to cut their numbers for social distancing. Encampments were allowed to remain all day, and major cleanups were halted to avoid spread of the virus. Homeless areas grew larger and more visible.

Tents housing homeless people are dwarfed by tall buildings in Los Angeles.

But a new city ordinance has tried to thread the legal needle by limiting where homeless people can be if they decline social services. Critics say it severely limits where homeless people can camp without telling them where they can, and it fails to question why homeless people might pass up housing.

"We still don’t have enough beds for 61% of the people who are homeless in Los Angeles," said Bonin, who voted against the ordinance. "We can all point to projects, but the reality is the inventory isn’t there."

People are frustrated

Los Angeles residents have twice voted to raise their taxes over the past five years, approving measures to address housing and services for homeless people.

Federal and state funds have been allocated since last year.

Belongings of the homeless crowd a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in Skid Row.

"There seems to be so much money that’s available that’s just not being utilized, or is being utilized in a way that has little to no effect on the problem," said Richard Loew, president of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council in northeast LA.

That's reflected in the data. The USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll found that 54% of residents favored cutting city programs to help homeless people, compared with 34% who opposed that idea. They were evenly split on whether taxes should be raised to help them.

Proposition HHH, approved by voters in 2016, allows the city to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to subsidize 10,000 housing units with on-site services for homeless people. The city is still thousands of units away from its goal because of high construction costs and permit delays. The average cost to build a unit is now more than $578,000, according to the mayor's office.

"We are housing people faster than we ever have, but more people are falling into homelessness," said Kate Pynoos, who worked on the issue for Bonin and is now running for city council.

Many services for homeless people are reserved for the most chronically homeless and disabled, Flaming said, rather than those who have just lost their homes or are about to. Pynoos said that must change.

Los Angeles has embarked on building tiny home villages to house homeless people. In this photo, a homeless person sits inside his tiny home in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Solutions are complicated by the difference in city and county responsibilities. The city can build new housing; the county handles public health, mental health and the foster care system, all of which may lead to or prevent homelessness.

The complexity of the problem makes it "very hard to feel like you can be helpful in any manageable way," Flaming said.

It demands better solutions, he said. Homelessness "tears at the community fabric, and it tears at our sense of being able to look out for each other."

Contributing: Cady Stanton

Tami Abdollah is a USA TODAY national correspondent covering inequities in the criminal justice system, send tips via direct message @latams or email tami(at)usatoday.com