By nearly every metric, Los Angeles has the worst homelessness crisis of any city in America. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are more people suffering from chronic homelessness in L.A. than anywhere in the country, and their number is growing at a faster clip than those in New York City.
Earlier this month, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition HHH, which will raise $1.2 billion for homeless services, with most of the money allocated for permanent supportive housing. But NIMBY (or Not in My Backyard) opposition to homeless services is still very much a thing, and it remains to be seen if neighborhood activists will try to prevent the proliferation of permanent supportive housing anywhere outside of Skid Row.
In other words, Angelenos’ feelings about homelessness are complicated. Residents (or at least voters) want to help those who are suffering, but many of them worry that helping might have negative side effects on their communities.
In the spirit of demystifying homelessness for the sake of helping to solve it, here are some of the common misconceptions about those living on the streets:
7. People without a home come to Los Angeles for the weather
It makes sense, right? Why be homeless in the freezing cold when you could bask in the 290-odd days of sunshine a year in L.A.?
Except it’s not true. According to the most recent homelessness survey by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, 72 percent of adults experiencing homelessness have lived in Los Angeles County for more than 20 years, and 87 percent of them have lived here for more than five years.
In fact, people who study homelessness say that the majority of people sleeping on the streets don’t venture far from the home where they last lived.
“People don’t go to be homeless somewhere else,” says Greg Spiegel, director of strategic initiatives at the Inner City Law Center. “Most people stay in their neighborhood.” The one major exception is Skid Row, which attracts homeless people seeking a concentration of services and shelters — or a concentration of other homeless people.
6. They’re all mentally ill or drug addicts
According LAHSA, only 30 percent of people experiencing homelessness claim to suffer from mental illness, and only 23 percent report substance abuse. Since there is some crossover there (people can answer yes to both questions), it’s safe to say that a majority of people experiencing homelessness are neither mentally ill nor drug addicts.
5. They prefer living on the streets
Spiegel says this is the most common misconception about people experiencing homelessness — that they don’t want help.
“Almost everybody wants permanent housing,” Spiegel says. “What there is often is resistance to is homeless shelters. There’s a lot of barriers to participating in shelters. There’s big crowds. There’s rules. Couples are split up. You can’t bring your dog in. You can’t bring your stuff in.”
That said, those who provide services to the homeless say that once they form a relationship and develop trust with them, most homeless people choose housing over sleeping on the streets.
There are also people who want to sleep in a shelter but can’t get in. Los Angeles has roughly 12,000 emergency shelter beds, which fill up nearly every night. New York City, by comparison, has enough shelters to house more than 60,000 people a night. That means L.A. only has the capacity to shelter about a quarter of its homeless residents.
The fact is that if every homeless person wanted to get help tomorrow, there wouldn’t be anywhere near the capacity to help them.
4. Most of them are men
While it’s true that the homeless population is majority male, the number of homeless women is on the rise in L.A. — to the extent that they could eventually outnumber homeless men. Nearly one third of L.A.’s homeless population is female, according to LAHSA’s recent count — and women account for 61 percent of the increase in homelessness since 2013.
3. Homeless services bring down property values
A study by the Furman Center, published in 2008, found that supportive housing did not lead to a decrease in property values of surrounding homes – if anything, those homes increased in value.
The study didn’t include the impact of facilities like storage lockers for homeless people, which residents of Venice and San Pedro have fought against. But there is no evidence that such facilities lead to higher crime or a drop in home prices.
2. All homeless people need permanent supportive housing
Permanent supportive housing – apartment buildings with on-site services like counseling and medical care — are intended only for the chronically homeless. Service providers estimate that only 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population need permeant supportive housing.
People experiencing homelessness have different needs. Some need treatment for drug addiction and alcoholism. Most need what’s known as “rapid rehousing” — essentially temporary rent subsidies coupled with job training and short-term counseling or health care.
1. Homelessness is unsolvable
While it’s true that homelessness can’t be completely eradicated, it can be drastically reduced. In Utah, officials used permanent supportive housing to decrease the population of chronically homeless people by 91 percent.
Spiegel says that when people experiencing chronic homelessness are properly placed in permanent supportive housing, 85 percent of them on average stay housed.
“There is nothing closer to that [success rate] in any kind of other intervention,” he says.
Other people may require a more subtle and less expensive approach – counseling, treatment, rent subsidies, health care. All of which, of course, require time, money, patience and, perhaps most important, empathy.