For most of the year, America’s houseless community exists in the shadows, abandoned, isolated, and willfully forgotten. Through surges and storms, homicides and handcuffs, amid crowded streets outside of quarantined cafes, the homeless crisis seeps ever so quietly across the countryside, a barely seen phenomenon swept up in a whirlwind of social justice hashtags.
But one to three nights out of that year, something changes. During this timeframe, advocates and outreach workers take to the streets to count homeless people, at least those visible enough to be identified. The government calls this a snapshot, a Point In Time Count. That’s what most data on homelessness comprises: this short span of somber calculation.
Anyone with a math brain or an eye for detail can see the gaping flaws in such a system. Homeless advocates are especially keen on the drastic undercounting this technique inevitably presents. This snapshot has considerable limitations compared to painting an entire picture through a lengthy, thorough investigation. Yet flawed as it may be, the PIT count can still be somewhat helpful in giving us a glimpse into emerging trends.
We might not know how many people experience homelessness each year, but we can still tell a bit about whether or not the crisis is increasing based on the small sample of information collected. We can identify who the crisis is increasing for and assess which cities and towns across the country are doing their best to rectify the situation.
In some cases, we can even bear witness to historical records that just might have national implications. Such is the case this year, as LA’s homeless PIT count has a harrowing story to tell.
LA’S 2022 Homeless PIT Count Shows Homelessness is Trending Ever Higher
The 2022 PIT Count for LA County was released in early September but reflected data collected back in 2021. The snapshot, postponed previously due to pandemic shutdowns, shows a disturbing 4.1% spike since the last count, which took place in 2019.
It’s important to note that not everybody sees this spike as bad news. The increase is significantly lower than in previous years, suggesting that temporary pandemic provisions stalled the crisis at a slower pace. As a point of reference, The Los Angeles Times points out that homelessness shot up a whopping 25% between 2018 and 2020, making the latest increase comparatively less but still evident.
Experts say the numbers in this PIT count suggest a dismal future for homelessness in LA and nationwide. Indeed, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn called the results “disheartening.” The advocate-run Twitter account KTown for All echoed the sentiment with an eye-opening thread detailing several significant statistics, which closed with the following comment: “The human cost of our city’s structural and moral failures is staggering.”
The 2022 homeless count numbers just dropped and homelessness in LA is at an all time high. At the time of the count in 2021 there were 69,144 people experiencing homelessness in LA County, a 4.1% increase from the last count in 2019. ?
— Ktown for All ?? (@KtownforAll) September 9, 2022
The Total Number of Houseless Individuals in LA County is Nearly 70,000 People
Take a minute to envision a football stadium packed to or near its capacity. The SoFi Stadium, the latest in a long line of LA-based designer indoor arenas, holds close to 70,000 people. Unironically, that’s about the same number of people currently homeless in LA County.
And while homelessness is slowly slinking across the county, the number of people placed in permanent housing has inexplicably decreased by approximately 7%. These statistical estimates are certainly providing a snapshot – of what the world looks like with temporary protections staving off certain economic disasters and what might happen now that things like the eviction moratorium and various financial rescue packages have ceased.
Below are several important trends from LA County that have national implications.
Trend 1: Overrepresentation of Black People Experiencing Homelessness, but a Statistically Significant Decrease in this Population
On an optimistic note, the overall population of black people experiencing homelessness decreased by 9%. Yet even with these numbers trending down, black people in America are still vastly overrepresented in the homeless population. While they comprise 9% of the general population, they still make up 30% of the homeless population.
Trend 2: A Sharp 26% Increase in Homelessness Amongst Latinos
According to LA data, Latinos now comprise the fastest-growing demographic for homelessness, having witnessed a shocking 26% increase overall. Here we see that while Latino homelessness is increasing faster than other minority groups like African Americans, this group is not overrepresented. Rather, their representation is just under an even keel, as they account for 49% of the general population and 44% of the homeless population.
Trend 3: More Senior Homelessness
The number of senior citizens experiencing homelessness continues to rise in post-pandemic America. In LA County, it went up 6.5% between 2019 and 2021. Amid said seniors, the leading causes of homelessness are poverty and a lack of affordable housing. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the ratio of seniors to available, affordable senior housing units is currently 9:1.
Trend 4: More Chronic Homelessness
Chronic homelessness was yet another surge in a subpopulation, increasing by more than 10% countywide. Nationwide, chronic homelessness – the term used to describe people living unhoused for a year or more – increased by about 15%.
Trend 5: More Female Homelessness
Female homelessness exhibited a nominal uptick in this latest report, inching up by about 2.4%. Women, particularly single mothers, are experiencing homelessness at accelerated rates, far beyond what’s being reflected in the data.
Trend 6: Prioritizing Shelter over Housing
Perhaps one of the brighter findings highlighted by this study is the sharp increase in shelter within the homeless population, which went up by approximately 8.7%. However, that increase is still accompanied by a 7% decrease in permanent housing placement.
To its credit, the LAHSA has obtained permanent housing placement for approximately 84,000 individuals and families over the past five years. Still, any system where roughly the same number of people enter as exits is broken and in desperate need of repair. On a national level, we also witness an overall push to prioritize temporary shelter over permanent housing. While temporary shelter is sometimes a pitstop on the path to securing a permanent home, it should never serve as the ultimate solution.
Trend 7: More Than Half of LA County-based Houseless People Did Not Suffer from Substance Abuse or Severe Mental Illness
Lining right up with Invisible People’s Truth Talk series, we find that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness in the Greater Los Angeles County region, 60.5% to be exact, DO NOT suffer from drug addiction, severe mental illness, or any combination of the two. This proves, yet again, that these issues are secondary contributing factors and not the leading causes of homelessness. While this is true nationwide, what we see in media is a push to skew the numbers again and proclaim that addiction is, according to these sources, probably higher than it appears in these charts.
However, when you consider the fact that 51% of homeless children are under the age of six, and that homeless children, while rarely counted in these surveys, make up approximately 2.5 million of the people experiencing homelessness each year according to federal school records, it becomes clear that these statistics are probably much lower, which leads into the next point.
Trend 8: Invisible Homeless Women and Children
Each year, journalists turn to the PIT Count when reporting on homeless data. Still, one of the biggest pitfalls of this survey is its inability to uncover and quantify homeless women and children.
As mentioned above, school records indicate that a jaw-dropping 2.5 million (or one in 30) schoolchildren experience homelessness yearly. Other studies suggest that female homelessness is increasing at faster rates than is being reported. This is because women and children are more likely to endure the hardship of hidden homelessness – i.e., living doubled up on a neighbor’s sofa or huddled up in the parked family minivan. These individuals are, therefore, more difficult to spot and likely the reason there’s such a gaping discrepancy between the PIT reports and school reports on homelessness. What we see in LA and nationwide is an increase in places where hidden homelessness often exists, such as:
- Makeshift shelters
Trend 9: More Vehicular and Encampment Homelessness with Seemingly Nobody Inside
Despite an uptick in shelter, LAHSA uncovered a 17% increase in hidden homelessness in the form of tents, vehicles, and makeshift roadside shelters with seemingly nobody inside. The organization points out that this could be because COVID-19 made homelessness more visible across the county and the world.
The fact that many tents and vehicles appear to be abandoned doesn’t necessarily mean all these people have been housed. In fact, it is more likely that the people dwelling in these spaces are hiding from authority figures due to fear and mistrust, among other things, hence the term “hidden homelessness.”
Trend 10: Limitations and Acknowledgements
As we witnessed above with the growing epidemic of hidden homelessness, especially amongst single mothers and their children, one of the key trends within this survey is its limitations. While the survey suggests veteran homelessness is down, one glimpse at the footnotes reveals that numbers for veteran homelessness are not inclusive of the whole county. They are only reflective of LA Continuum of Care data.
When the entire county is considered, it is revealed that veteran homelessness marginally increased by about 1%. Using the PIT method, limitations with quantifying youth homelessness abound, from difficulty uncovering hidden homelessness among women and children to the closure of several youth shelters in response to COVID-19.
LAHSA does strive to point out the numerous survey limitations, as well as to dispel many myths related to homelessness. To quote the paper directly, the authors state, “Decades of bad policies mark our national and local history that created our housing and homelessness crises.” The organization also lists the following structural factors currently causing the homeless crisis.
- A lack of affordable housing
- A lack of services and support
- Mass incarceration
- Stagnant wages and unfathomably high housing and rental prices
Key Takeaway: We Need More Housing
In the end, this survey proves that temporary government safeguards and provisions prevented homelessness from growing at its previously higher rates. However, policies that prioritized temporary shelter and criminalization over permanent housing solutions did little to get people off the streets.