Congress Looks At Ways to Help Los Angeles With Homelessness Crisis

A row of tents stationed under a viaduct in LA.

A row of tents stationed under a viaduct in LA. Mike Ledray/Shutterstock

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At a House Financial Committee hearing, members of Congress heard about possible local, state, and federal solutions.

The homelessness crisis in Los Angeles has led inhumane conditions for people living on the city’s streets. Shelters have run out of beds, and tent cities have sprung up in their place. Last fall, officials declared a typhus outbreak among the homeless, which some blamed on the growing rat population in areas where people are living outside. Others raised concerns that the arrival of thousands in the city for the 2028 Olympics will cause the city to employ a “sweep it under the rug” approach, clearing encampments and scrubbing the streets of all traces of the homeless.

Los Angeles has long struggled to reduce its rate of homelessness, and has seen many fluxuations in the population over the past decade. In 2007, the county had over 68,000 homeless people, more than they have now. While that number saw a dramatic reduction, the homeless population has seen a steady rebounding over the past five years, reaching almost 59,000 people without shelter in the county this year. 

The surge has led to calls for the resignation of city officials and uproar from Angelenos. The crisis has also attracted national attention, and brought dozens of mayors together, under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, to call for federal action on homelessness.

At a panel hearing held in Los Angeles on Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee heard from a variety of county and city officials about the scope of the crisis. 

Peter Lynn, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, was one of the first to testify, and said that while the 2019 count of the homeless population may seem dramatic, it only “tells a snapshot” of what could have been a much larger crisis. “55,000 people fell into homelessness over the course of 2018, so about 150 people per day. We were able to house 133 people out of homelessness on a daily basis, and that gap led to the increase,” he said. “That gap is primarily driven by housing affordability.”  

Lynn then noted that if Los Angeles were a state, it would be the tenth largest in the country, making its expensive housing market a massive problem. He was not the only one to draw attention to housing affordability in the region. 

“Too many people cannot afford to keep a roof over their heads as wages have not kept pace with rising rents,” said Committee Chair Maxine Waters, a Democrat who represents part of the city. 

Waters recently introduced the Ending Homelessness Act, which would appropriate $13 billion in mandatory emergency relief funding over five years to federal housing initiatives across the country. She noted that 721,000 households in the county are severely rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on rent.

The city of Los Angeles has built a number of initiatives to deal with the situation on the ground, many of them with support from voters. In 2016, city voters approved a proposition to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to fund additional housing. In 2017, voters in Los Angeles County approved a sales tax increase, dedicating $3.5 billion in revenue to find solutions for homelessness over the following 10 years. The city has also passed a rent stabilization ordinance and land use incentives to encourage mixed-income developments, created an eviction defense program, built 26 interim housing projects with over 2,000 beds, and is set to construct 10,000 new supportive housing units by 2026. 

In 2019, the city appropriated $462 million to their homelessness budget, 25 times what the budget was 2015, with two-thirds of that amount going to support permanent housing.

At the state level, California voters approved two ballot initiatives that authorized over $6 billion for housing-related programs for veterans, new permanent supportive housing structures, and mental health services.

But despite these steps, Christina Miller, the deputy mayor for city homeless initiatives, emphasized that without federal attention, the city is unlikely to reduce the homeless population by a significant degree. “With decades of disinvestment from the state and federal government amounted to nearly $500 million per year on average, we need your help to make lasting progress,” she said. “While the crisis is not as acute in most cities as it is here in Los Angeles, this is undoubtedly a pervasive issue nationally. It is one that has impacted big cities especially, but also rural areas, and has left many families and individuals without a safe place to live and thrive. The only way we find our way out of this crisis is together.”

Rep. Al Green, a Democrat from Texas, pointed out the various feeder systems into homelessness, all of which, he argued, need to be addressed at once for a solution to be successful. “This is bigger than any one single crisis,” he said. “It’s an affordable housing crisis. A living wage crisis. A mental health crisis. A substance abuse crisis. An incarceration crisis. And it is also an invidious discrimination crisis.”

Green then called homelessness an “unnatural disaster” that Congress needs to address with equal vigor to natural disasters. “For our natural disasters, we spend untold amounts of money,” he said. “We spent over $100 billion on Hurricane Katrina and again on Hurricane Harvey. The Ending Homelessness Act is only $13 billion, and it takes a holistic approach.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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