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California Faces Crisis Of Homelessness


Some new federal data shows that most U.S. states are seeing declines in homelessness, which is good news. But overall, the number of homeless people in this country is going up. So what is happening here? The answer lies on the West Coast, especially in California, where the numbers of homeless people just keep rising.

Erika Smith is a writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times, and she covers homelessness. She's on the line now. Good morning, Erika.

ERIKA SMITH: Good morning.

KING: So last week, I read a story that you wrote where you said this was the year that homelessness truly felt like a crisis in Los Angeles. What are you seeing that made you write that?

SMITH: Well, I mean, I think that for years, homelessness was pretty much confined to the downtown area of LA - mostly skid row and at times in Hollywood. But in the last couple of years, it's spread into different neighborhoods and places that you wouldn't expect.

I mean, personally, I live on the west side in Marina Del Rey. And one night, I came home to find a guy - a homeless guy - who was sleeping between the wall and my car...

KING: Oh, my gosh.

SMITH: ...In my parking garage underground. And, you know, I think these are incidents that residents are facing more often, where you're seeing somebody that you don't necessarily want on your property, but you - you know, hesitation to call the police or to do something about it is a little bit different because you also don't want to be heartless.

And so I think as this crisis continues to balloon, it's affecting residents, obviously it's affecting homeless people who are out there on the streets deteriorating. And, you know, it's just becoming a bigger and bigger crisis. It's harder to ignore.

KING: Why are things getting worse?

SMITH: Well, I think this is - it's easy to kind of look at the numbers and say this is something that happened recently. But the reality is this is something that's happened over years. California has not kept up with homebuilding, and so there's a severe housing shortage, and so rents are going up because of supply and demand. There are not enough - wages are not going up.

But also I think what doesn't get talked about enough is a few years ago, the state kind of made a decision to invest more in permanent supportive housing. And a lot of funds went to that. But at the same time, there were a lot of shelters that weren't built and other things that were more temporary in nature. And so I think as the state has focused more on these longer-term solutions, which are very much mainstream and what other states have done, in California, that - longer-term solutions has been longer than other states. And so in the meantime, the homeless population has skyrocketed.

KING: OK, this is really interesting. I just want to untangle a little bit of what you said there. You've reported that California residents have voted, city residents have voted, they have OK'd hundreds of millions of dollars for new housing and services. The problem it sounds like what you're saying is, it's going to longer-term projects, like building houses, and not to immediate solutions, so you have people on the streets for that reason.

SMITH: That's one of the reasons I think so. I mean, I think the other reason is a lot of the money that LA voters and California voters have voted to approve, it's going into the pipeline. Like, for example, in LA, there was Proposition HHH. That was a huge housing ballot measure for housing. And that money has been allocated, but a lot of those products are taking years to get off the ground. The first one's supposed to open in January even though that ballot measure has been on the books for a couple of years now.

So it's the time that it takes to build. It's the decisions that policymakers made, you know, a few years ago looking at the crisis, and it's just basically how things have evolved where the economy is still red hot, people are still making lots of money, but a lot of people just aren't - their wages aren't keeping up. And so you have basically a huge income inequality and a huge wage gap.

KING: Is there, I wonder, any chance of things improving in the next year? Now that - I mean, people are calling it a crisis. You're saying it's in everyone's face, including people whose faces it normally wasn't in. Can we look forward to improvement next year?

SMITH: Well, I think - well, the good thing is that a lot of the housing that was promised, at least in LA County, is going to start coming online next year. As I mentioned, the first one is going to open supposedly in January. A few others are slated to open as well. The city has managed to open at least 10 shelters that were planned. And there were also - basically, rent caps are going to go into effect, so there's a possibility that fewer people will be evicted as well.

KING: Some good news possibly.


KING: Erika Smith of the Los Angeles Times, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.