Homelessness in Los Angeles: Down for the Count?

05/13/2015 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016

The recent homeless count in Los Angeles revealed that homelessness increased by 16 percent from 2013 to the present; the unsheltered homeless population has nearly tripled. For those of us who have noticed an increasing number of tents propped up along our sidewalks, and too many recreational vehicles parked along our streets, we are not surprised.

With so many homelessness initiatives in the past dozen years, should we not be surprised?

For the last 20 years, I have led a homeless and housing organization based in Los Angeles called PATH. During this period, I have worked with four Los Angeles city mayors, participated in seven Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless counts, and seen numerous homeless initiatives come and go in the city and the county.

In 2003, Los Angeles put together a Blue Ribbon Panel, which I was part of, to create a "ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness." The plan proposed creating 50,000 housing units at a cost of $12 billion. Clearly, our political leaders did not have the appetite to endow such a plan. In the end, this initiative stayed on some bureaucrat's bookshelf.

After Los Angeles' first homeless count concluded that nearly 90,000 people were homeless in 2005, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa courageously committed $100 million to the city's Housing Trust Fund. The County invested an additional $100 million toward its own "Homeless Prevention Initiative."

In 2007, the County supported a strategic initiative to identify and house 50 of the most vulnerable people living on the streets of Skid Row. Led by the nonprofit group Common Ground, this successful "Project 50" program turned into a county-wide effort (and part of a national initiative) to house vulnerable people in dozens of communities throughout the county. Thousands of people were housed.

Two years later, the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit public policy research organization, released a study, which documented the public cost for people who live on our streets. They discovered that the price of healthcare, law enforcement, emergency housing and public assistance was nearly five times greater than providing a person with a supportive housing unit. In other words, it costs society more money to allow people to live on the streets than to house them in an apartment.

This economic justification for housing people piqued the interest of the business community. In 2010, they joined Los Angeles' efforts to address homelessness. Called "Home For Good," the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce created a plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2016. They brought together public and private entities to coordinate funding, services and housing efforts. Home for Good has documented that, since 2011, Los Angeles has housed nearly 20,000 veterans and chronically homeless people.

Los Angeles has certainly actively addressed homelessness in the past dozen years. We cannot be faulted for not doing enough. In fact, encouraged by First Lady Michelle Obama and supported by Mayor Eric Garcetti, the latest Los Angeles initiative is to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year.

So why is homelessness increasing? And have we failed?

The good news is that Los Angeles has invested more resources than ever before. The region is more coordinated among its public and private agencies, and the focus is on housing our most vulnerable people on the streets first.

The city and county's public housing authorities are prioritizing more housing vouchers for people who are homeless, and the federal government has increased its housing assistance resources, especially to veterans who are homeless.

Homelessness in Los Angeles, however, will not drastically decrease until structural solutions occur.

For years, the idea of "Housing First" where the most chronically homeless persons are given apartments linked with support services has been paramount. And rightfully so. That is why Los Angeles, as well as communities across this country, have successfully housed thousands and thousands of people who used to live on our streets.

But as we are now witnessing, simply housing more people will not stop the flow of homelessness onto our streets. That is because homelessness is more than just about people living in tents, inside RV's, along our freeways and beaches and in front of our businesses.

Homelessness is a poverty issue. People living on our streets are a result of our nation's inability to save people from falling through a broken social safety net.

Our nation needs to address the inequity of wages, the inadequate stock of affordable housing, the lack of planning for people departing prisons, foster care and our armed services. We need to better educate our youth, especially those in poor urban neighborhoods. Sadly, this list of society's broken social ills is long.

Until we are able to stem the flow of people who are unable to escape poverty, homelessness will persist in this country.

As for Los Angeles, our city has not lacked in creative, hard working efforts to house its homeless population. In fact, don't let these homeless numbers fool you. We should be commended for permanently housing so many people.