Homelessness spikes up 12 percent in LA County, roughly 59,000 living on the streets

Homelessness in Los Angeles County spiked by 12 percent over the past year to reach an estimated 58,936 people, according to figures released on Tuesday, with the region's housing costs outpacing wages and forcing people onto the streets faster than authorities can find them shelter.

According to figures released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, nearly three-quarters of homeless people are living in cars, tents, makeshift shelters or on the streets without any apparent cover from the elements.

"We have the largest unsheltered population in the nation and one of the largest homeless counts across America. Only New York has more people experiencing homelessness on any given night," according to LAHSA Executive Director Peter Lynn.

The city of Los Angeles saw a 16% increase in its numbers.

Though the number of chronically homeless individuals has increased by 17%, demographers and statisticians responsible for the count said they believe the real issue is the inflow of newly homeless people.

Phil Ansell, who runs the county's Homeless Initiative said it may seem counterintuitive, but "a booming economy can actually lead to an increase in homelessness."

He said that in a growing economy, rental rates have outpaced wages, particularly for people living at the margins and making minimum wage. A minimum-wage employee would have to work 79 hours a week at $13.25 per hour to afford the rent in an average one-bedroom apartment, Lynn said.

The numbers are up despite tens of thousands of people who have moved off the streets and into permanent housing. In the last year alone, the county has helped 21,631 people find permanent homes and another 27,080 who were homeless at some point during the year were able to lift themselves out of homelessness, according to the data.

But officials say more needs to be done to increase the supply of affordable housing and prevent other families from falling into homelessness. Los Angeles County officials said they are adding strategies geared at combating economic factors. When the Board of Supervisors approved $460 million in Measure H spending on homelessness three weeks ago, it focused on finding ways to offset rising rental rates and provide opportunities for steady employment through an employment task force and jobs training program.

County officials have backed a bill to speed conversions of motels into supportive housing units and is considering housing homeless veterans at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall downtown, among other local efforts to increase the amount of shelter space, bridge housing and permanent supportive housing units.

The county has also put a 3 percent cap on rental increases in unincorporated areas and is backing statewide legislation to limit rents and prevent landlords from unjustly evicting tenants. However, California voters rejected a 2018 proposal to give local governments more latitude to enact rent controls.

There is a pipeline of more than 10,000 affordable units, but only 1,397 are on track to be available in fiscal year 2019-20. However, Ansell said the state can take action immediately on three key issues that could help alleviate the problem sooner, including pending legislation prohibiting rent gouging, evictions without cause and discrimination against renters with housing subsidies.

"Any increase in homelessness is heartbreaking, and we can see with our own eyes -- on the streets of L.A. and cities across California -- that the crisis has tightened its grip around the lives of too many of our neighbors. These results remind us of a difficult truth: skyrocketing rents statewide and federal disinvestment in affordable housing, combined with an epidemic of untreated trauma and mental illness, is pushing people into homelessness faster than they can be lifted out," Mayor Eric Garcetti said in part in a statement Tuesday. "This work has never been for the faint of heart, and we cannot let a set of difficult numbers discourage us, or weaken our resolve. And I know that, if we keep working together, believing in one another, and caring for people in desperate situations, we will end homelessness in this city."

CNS contributed to this story.