On September 8th, LA’s 2022 Homeless Count numbers finally came out. This is the annual federally mandated census of homelessness, undertaken over multiple nights, usually in late January by thousands of volunteers who walk or drive our city’s streets. Last year’s count was canceled due to COVID — so this was really the first time since the pandemic started that we got a snapshot into our progress on homelessness here in LA.
Overall, homelessness in the city of LA grew by 1.7%, with a 1% decrease in unsheltered homelessness (unsheltered means that you are on the street, often in tents or in vehicles). After years of double-digit growth in homelessness and two-plus years of a pandemic, the fact that homelessness in LA has stayed mostly flat since 2020 is itself significant news — something we should be analyzing closely.
My biggest takeaway: Homelessness in LA is as urgent a crisis as it ever was—our numbers are still way too high, and we have a lot of work ahead. But efforts to keep people housed and bring more people indoors during the pandemic had an enormous impact on slowing the growth from previous years. We must build on these successful efforts as we move forward.
Two things happened during the pandemic that experts said likely have played a role in significantly slowing the growth of homelessness.
Firstly, the city, state, and federal government invested heavily in supporting tenants. City of Los Angeles renters and landlords received nearly $2 billion in rental assistance through programs designed to stabilize households during the pandemic. A network of lawyers provided free eviction defense support through the Stay Housed LA program. And finally, a moratorium on evictions for tenants who could not pay their rent because of COVID-related job loss and a freeze on rent increases in rent stabilized units likely contributed to keeping people in their homes.
Secondly, we made unprecedented investments in increasing the amount of housing available for people experiencing homelessness, especially in opening up more hotel and motel rooms available for people to move off the streets through Project Roomkey and Project Homekey. The City also opened up more units of permanent supportive housing, as HHH units finally started coming online, and more investments in things like tiny home communities. We have always known that homes end homelessness. Los Angeles has long under-invested in shelter and housing relative to its homeless population, especially in comparison to cities like New York and Houston that have much smaller populations of unsheltered homelessness, and have even seen declines in their total homeless population. And for the first time, we are starting to make investments that are seeing results, slow as they are.
To me, the path ahead is clear: do more of what we know works. As we ease out of pandemic related renter protections, we must create a better and more robust system of tenant protections, like universal just cause protections, better tracking of evictions, and a funded system of legal support to help tenants stay housed. We must also continue to expand our still woefully inadequate shelter and housing system. Houston, which has reduced homelessness significantly in recent years, has three times the number of housing units as people experiencing homelessness. That’s what we should be aspiring to here in LA as well.
In our district, we have hopeful news as well. Our district had seen increases in street homelessness over the years — a growth of 64% from 2016 to 2020— but this year, unsheltered homelessness in our district went down by 7%. In fact, we saw street homelessness go down, even when the number of people who were homeless overall went up by 12%. That’s largely because we added hundreds of shelter beds in CD4 since 2020, and saw a corresponding growth in our sheltered population – by 163%!
If LA lets the resources it expanded over the last two years disappear, we’ll almost certainly see homelessness spike again. If LA allows renters to face a punishing market without support, homelessness will spike again. We don’t need to let that happen. The results of the most recent count show actual progress. We can do even better. But we have to do more of what worked.
*Our district boundaries changed via redistricting right around when the 2022 count took place, so all of the figures noted here apply to the old district boundaries, not the new one. See a map of our district at bit.ly/cd4field.