By  Nick Gerda/LAist

Originally Published May 30

It’s the top concern on Angelenos’ minds, according to survey after survey. And L.A.’s new mayor has declared it her top priority.

Homelessness. It’s been growing for decades in the L.A. area, with tens of thousands of people now without a permanent residence — living on the streets, in shelters, on friends’ couches, in RVs or their cars.

How did we get here? Who’s in charge of what? And where can people get help?

We’ve put together a guide to answer some of the most common questions about the crisis. If there’s anything else you want to know about, feel free to reach out to us here.

How many people are unhoused in L.A.? And in L.A. County?

The best-available info on this comes from the annual “Point-in-Time Count” conducted early each year by thousands of volunteers and overseen by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Compiling the results takes months, which means the most recent available numbers are from the February 2022 survey. That found:

  • L.A. County: About 69,000 unhoused people experiencing homelessness — a 4% rise from 2020. This includes people in the city of L.A.
  • City of L.A.: About 42,000 unhoused people — a 2% increase since 2020.

Note: The survey was not conducted in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Graphic courtesy of the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority.

The continuing increase in homelessness was attributed mainly to rents rising faster than people’s pay — particularly among people already earning extremely low incomes.

recent RAND Corporation survey found 90% of unhoused people in high-concentration areas want permanent housing, with many on lengthy waitlists.

“Even if they qualify for housing it can take a really long time to be placed into housing” because demand outpaces supply, said Sarah Hunter, a behavioral scientist who leads the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles.

These waits can last months and even several years.

A couple of notable changes to L.A. County’s unhoused population in recent years: The number of unhoused Latinos has grown, while the number of unhoused veterans has decreased slightly amid greater investments in resources to support them.

Graphic courtesy of the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority.

More people over age 65 are now unhoused as people stay on the streets longer and many older adults on fixed incomes can’t afford rent increases. And more people than ever before are in shelters, after unprecedented major investments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yolanda Orellana and her dog inside her apartment under Mayor Bass’ Inside Safe program in Vermont Square. Photo by Brian Feinzimer with LAist.

Additionally, deaths of unhoused people have been skyrocketing — up 70% in L.A. County between just 2019 and 2021, according to the latest data available from county health officials. A total of 2,201 unhoused people died in 2021 in L.A. County.

The number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness increased each year and is depicted in the blue bar graph. The all-cause crude mortality rate, which accounts for increases in the total homeless population over that eight-year period, also increased each year and depicted in the pink line graph. Graphic courtesy of L.A. County Dept. of Public Health.

Unhoused people were 38 times more likely to die from an overdose, 20 times more likely to die from a transportation-related injury and 15 times more likely to die from homicide, compared to the general population.

Some things to keep in mind about the numbers

A newer Point-in-Time count was conducted in January of this year, though the results aren’t expected to become public until June at the earliest.

Officials are now keeping an eye out to see if a wave of evictions — and homelessness — will result from the March 31 end to tenant protections and rental assistance created during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eviction filings were already at a high point — data shows filings this March were higher than any other March going back to 2015.

An important caveat: The point-in-time numbers are estimates, and aren’t perfect.While it is the best-available data for the total number of people living on the streets and in shelters, its accuracy year-to-year can be affected by factors like cold weather, rain, changes to counting protocols and how many volunteers participate in counting.

“As a larger population estimate, it’s reasonable,” said Benjamin Henwood, a USC professor who studies homelessness.

But, he said, there’s also reason to think there’s under or overcounts year to year.

The point-in-time counts also don’t include people who are living in non-traditional shelters like churches, crashing on couches, living short-term in motels or doubled or tripled up in apartments.

Princeton Parker, who also goes by Brandon, outside of the Hotel Silver Lake. Photo by Brian Feinzimer with LAist.

What’s driving homelessness in L.A.? How did we get here?

There are a lot of different reasons people become unhoused.

But experts say the main driving factor in L.A.’s homelessness is rising rental costs — due to a longtime shortage of housing — and wages not increasing enough to keep pace.

“We have a real imbalance between the cost of living here and housing supply,” said Hunter, the RAND researcher.

She explains the tension like this: Where there are lots of jobs but a severe lack of housing, the cost of housing goes up and “pushes out the bottom rung who maybe don’t have a good paying job.”

“Those that become unhoused are frequently rent-burdened, live paycheck to-paycheck, and many report suffering from serious mental illness or substance abuse issues,” county officials say on a website explaining the challenge.

“One-time events such as job loss, medical incidents, significant unforeseen costs, and no-fault evictions, also often lead individuals to become unhoused,” they add.

What about mental health and substance abuse?

People with health issues are especially vulnerable, with mental illness and addiction usually worsening more quickly after a housing loss.

“If they don’t have a mental health or substance use issue before [they’re] on the streets,” they often will after living on the streets for an extended period of time, Hunter said.

Still, more than half (60%) of unhoused people in the most recent survey do not report having either mental health or substance abuse issues.

As of the latest count, about 25% of unhoused people in L.A. County reported having a serious mental illness and 25% reported having a substance addiction.

Researchers have found that while people across the country experience addiction and mental illness, what distinguished communities with higher homelessness rates is a high cost of housing.

How long are people going unhoused?

People have been remaining unhoused for longer than in the past.

As of the latest count, about 40% of unhoused people in L.A. County had been experiencing homelessness for at least a year — known as being chronically unhoused.

And the number of chronically unhoused people rose much faster — a 12% jump in two years — than the overall unhoused population, which rose 4%.

Are unhoused people in L.A. from somewhere else?

Of people surveyed in 2002, 73% of unhoused people reported that they’d lived in L.A. for more than 10 years, according to LAHSA.

Here’s a look at the findings for the county overall, with the exception of Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach which conduct their own Point-In-Time counts.

Why has the crisis gotten worse?

LAHSA officials also point to several policy choices over the last few decades that have driven the crisis.

  • Stagnant incomes and increasing rents (driven largely by a worsening shortage of affordable housing). More than half a million households in L.A. County are “severely rent-burdened,” meaning they pay more than half their income toward rent. And nearly 80% of extremely low-income households are in that situation.

“While state and federal programs are meant to catch families before they fall into homelessness, they do not provide enough assistance to keep everyone in their homes,” LAHSA officials told LAist in a written response to questions.

  • LAHSA officials also pointed to a 2011 decision by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to eliminate $1 billion dedicated to building affordable housing, as part of eliminating redevelopment programs.
  • And they point to laws passed by the state Legislature in the 1980s and 90s that “made it easier to evict rent-controlled tenants (Ellis Act) and limited cities’ and counties’ ability to enact rent control protections (Costa-Hawkins Act).”

“Policy changes in the ’80s and ’90s have significantly expanded the population of people that are incarcerated, which has impacted Black and Latino people disproportionately,” LAHSA officials added. “Over 60% of people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County have been involved in the criminal justice system.”

Who’s in charge of what with homelessness?

Getting people into housing: The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).This is the joint city-county agency responsible for systems that place unhoused people into housing in the Los Angeles area. The agency’s “rehousing system” includes temporary and permanent housing run by nonprofit contractors who are paid and overseen by LAHSA.

“They really funnel a lot of the homeless service dollars that come not only from the feds but also come from the local measures that were passed,” said Henwood, the USC professor.

LAHSA says people have been placed in permanent housing over 86,000 times in the last four years under its programs — enough to fill Dodger Stadium one and a half times. But the demand often far outweighs the supply.

LAHSA’s budget is $845 million this year, almost all of which is taxpayer money from the county, city, state and federal governments. It’s overseen by an executive director, Va Lecia Adams Kellum, who started in April 2023 and works closely with L.A. Mayor Karen Bass. And LAHSA has a governing board appointed 50-50 by the mayor of L.A. and the county’s five elected supervisors.

Motel shelters, encampment cleanups and new housing approvals: City of L.A. (led by Bass and the city council). The city has long taken a district-by-district approach when it comes to homelessness, though Bass has been shifting that to focus the homelessness response citywide. But councilmembers still have a lot of influence over how city policies are implemented in their district. City officials also are in charge of approving permits for new housing, as well as zoning rules that determine how dense housing can be in particular areas. The city council also approves the city’s annual budget. This spring, the biggest increase in city homelessness spending is an extra $250 million for Bass’ Inside Safe motel shelter program.

Mental health services, drug treatment and social safety net enrollment: L.A. County (led by the five county supervisors, including current Chair Janice Hahn). The county is the main agency for these types of services — including in the city of L.A. — and gets state and federal funding for it. County officials say they also provide “short-term rental subsidies, housing conflict resolution and mediation with landlords and/or property managers, and legal defense against eviction.” These types of services are provided to people leaving jails, hospitals and foster care to help prevent them from becoming unhoused, according to a county spokesperson.

Funding: The state (Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature) and federal government (President Joe Biden and Congress). A lot of the money for local homelessness programs in L.A. comes from state and federal tax money. The state spent $9.6 billion on homelessness statewide, mostly on housing, over a three-year period ending in 2021.

Oshirious Martin, who grew up in San Bernardino, outside of the Hotel Silver Lake. Photo by Brian Feinzimer with LAist.

Key terms to understand the homelessness crisis

Inside Safe: Bass’ signature homelessness program, which offers motel rooms to people living in encampments that are about to be cleared. Since starting in late December 2022, over 1,200 people had been placed in motels and hotels under the program as of April, Bass told LAist.

The “41.18 Ordinance”: The city of L.A.’s anti-camping law, which bans sleeping, sitting, and placing personal property within 500 feet of public spaces, including schools and daycares. The regulation has divided residents — as well as councilmembers — over whether it should be expanded or contracted. In practice, how much it’s actually enforced varies across the city depending on how each councilmember wants to see it applied. For example, a divided city council voted in February to enforce it in West L.A. and much of North Hollywood.

Project Roomkey: A major federally-funded motel and hotel shelter program during the coronavirus pandemic that served medically vulnerable unhoused people in California. The program ended in February.

Project Homekey: California’s follow-up program to Project Roomkey, which provides billions of dollars for local governments to purchase motels and hotels and convert them into temporary and permanent housing for unhoused people. In the latest round of the program in 2022, L.A. County obtained 14 hotels and apartment buildings with a total of 720 units in Boyle Heights, Compton, East Hollywood, Inglewood, Koreatown, Redondo Beach, Lancaster, San Pedro, Westlake, Woodland Hills, and unincorporated areas of L.A. County.

LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority): The joint city-county agency responsible for systems that place unhoused people into housing in Los Angeles. See above for more.

City and county states of emergency: Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness on her first full day in office. That allowed her to speed up approvals for contracts to address the issue, and marshaled the city’s focus around the issue. County supervisors followed suit and issued their own emergency declaration, and both remain in effect.

A tent between the LA River and the 5 Freeway near Atwater Village on October 12, 2022. Photo by Brian Feinzimer with LAist.

Where can unhoused people get help?

Contact the main hotline for help: Call 2-1-1 or visit If you need outreach or know someone who needs help, visit to request outreach.

Connect to organizations that provide housing: Call 213-225-6581 for LAHSA’s Resource and Referral hotline. Click here for guides to housing providers in L.A. County and here for a list of service providers compiled by the RAND Corporation.

Access mental health support: Call 1-800-854-7771 for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health’s mental health helpline.

Get in-person help to get linked with services: Visit one of LAHSA’s Homeless Access Centers across the county listed here.

If you’re in the midst of an emergency call 9-1-1.

If you or someone you know has run into problems accessing services, please contact us here.

What can housed neighbors do to help?

Request homeless outreach services for a particular unhoused person: Contact LAHSA’s Homeless Outreach Portal. But it could take a few days for an outreach team to show up “due to high demand,” according to LAHSA.

Volunteer and donate to organizations serving unhoused people. Here’s LAHSA’s list of volunteer opportunities by region in L.A. County. And the city’s volunteer referral program: VolunteerLA. You can also volunteer for next year’s point-in-time count at

Support new affordable housing development in neighborhoods: The shortage of affordable housing is widely considered the main driver of the homelessness crisis. Developing more housing — especially affordable and permanent supportive homes — through faster city approvals and support from neighbors — is considered key to addressing the issue. If you want to help these efforts you can speak at public meetings.

Lease to voucher holders: Property owners can lease their vacant properties to people who have federal and local housing vouchers. L.A. County’s program to support landlords is called LeaseUp (more info available here).

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2023 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. Zero of LAHSA data is meaningful. Once a person is touched by a homeless advocate, the individual becomes ‘from Los Angeles’.

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