In summary

Despite efforts by Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass to shelter more than 14,000 people this year, the city’s homeless population keeps growing. That does not necessarily mean her signature program is failing. The larger question: How does California measure success?

A pair of recent reports on the state of homelessness in Los Angeles seemed to send mixed signals about how the effort to bring people in from the streets is going.

The first came was an announcement from Mayor Karen Bass, who said last month that her administration has helped shelter 14,381 unhoused people, largely by focusing on the encampments that have become symbols of this dismaying problem. This represents a major step forward in addressing homelessness, given that Bass pledged to find housing – permanent or interim – for 17,000 people in her first year. 

So 14,000 in the first six months was lauded as evidence of progress. 

But that encouraging sign was followed by the region’s annual homelessness count reporting a 10% jump within city limits, bringing the number of people sleeping without shelter to roughly 46,000. 

Those findings are not as contradictory as they may appear. Although released in June, the homeless count was the result of an annual tally that captured the unhoused population over three days in January, when volunteers fanned out across the region to identify the number of people without shelter. Bass only became mayor on Dec. 11, so the count occurred before her signature program, Inside Safe, had begun.

Moreover, although the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which conducts the annual count, emphasizes the great pains it takes to check its findings, officials acknowledge that the final numbers are “an imprecise estimate.”

So, the rise in the annual count of Los Angeles homeless does not mean that Bass’ efforts are failing. But the juxtaposition of those reports offers some reminders of how difficult her task really is.

The issue is not static. Even as Bass devotes enormous resources and political capital to confronting homelessness, the number of those struggling without a place to live is shifting. People lose jobs, get evicted or otherwise lose access to a place to live. They join the ranks of the homeless, swelling the population in one place as it shrinks in another. 

It is a classic case of bailing water from a boat with a hole in the bottom, a race at both ends.

The problem is also hard to quantify, both objectively and politically. It is clearly bad for the raw number of those without shelter in Los Angeles to grow at a time when there is so much being expended to bring that number down.

But, as Paul Rubenstein, a senior executive at LAHSA, noted, “The homeless count isn’t the only measure.” 

There are plenty of other ways to measure success (or failure): the length of time between reaching a homeless person and bringing them indoors; the number of shelter beds, number of affordable housing units, availability of treatment for addiction and mental illness; the number of encampments – to name a few.

What would the public and political verdict on this effort be if, say, Bass succeeded in eliminating encampments and vastly improving access to affordable housing but barely made a dent in the overall number of people on the street? Under those circumstances, the city’s middle class might feel safer and less confronted by homelessness, but the number of those suffering might not really have changed much – a scenario that combines political success and moral failure. 

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, left, shakes hands with Faith Pennington, an unhoused woman living in a tiny homes community in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles, during the annual homeless count on Jan. 24, 2023. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, left, shakes hands with Faith Pennington, an unhoused woman living in a tiny homes community in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles, during the annual homeless count on Jan. 24, 2023. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP Photo

Bass’ work so far has concentrated on eliminating encampments and working closely with the county – something lots of mayors talk about but very few actually do. There is encouraging evidence of cooperation. For example, city and county officials are working together on efforts to expedite housing and to provide services intended to move homeless people more quickly into that housing. 

“We’re on the same page,” Rubenstein said, “and we’re not going to be able to make progress unless we remain on the same page.”

Bass calls it “locking arms” and contrasts it with the more recognizable bureaucratic habit: “pointing fingers.”

As for encampments, they are not just eyesores. They are magnets for filth and crime, dangerous both to inhabitants and to neighbors. In its first six months, Bass’ Inside Safe initiative removed 19 encampments, in the process moving 1,323 people from tents to temporary housing, mostly in hotels.

That’s step one, and it’s encouraging. Step two is finding permanent places for those people to live. And that has yet to happen. As CalMatters reporter Marisa Kendall recently noted, fewer than 100 people have transitioned from an encampment to a permanent home since Inside Safe began earlier this year. 

I asked Bass this week if she was disappointed in those numbers. “Not just disappointed,” she responded. “Very disappointed,” especially, she added, because there are vacancies in permanent supportive housing in Los Angeles. 

Bass blamed bureaucracy but said her administration was making progress with the White House at clearing away obstacles.

“We’re on the same page, and we’re not going to be able to make progress unless we remain on the same page.”

Paul Rubenstein, senior executive at Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

Then there are the wild cards – the reminders that no amount of good-faith, locally generated policy is enough, that external forces will always wreak havoc on even the best-laid plans for homelessness. 

One example: Beginning in June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, taking a break from denying food to the hungry, water to the thirsty and trying to drown immigrants in the Rio Grande, began shipping busloads of migrants to Los Angeles. Since then, four more buses have arrived, each transporting dozens of people – many of them children as young as 2 years old and all in need of help. 

It’s purely politics, of course. But it involves real lives, and it disrupts the work underway in Los Angeles to provide housing and relief.

Bass was unsparing of her Republican counterparts. 

“This is a part of a Republican strategy,” she said, “to make it look like Democrats do not know how to govern.”

What’s more, each busload whittles away at her work to get ahead of homelessness in Los Angeles. Every time another 40 or 50 immigrants pile off those buses, dazed to find themselves in Los Angeles and without any place to go, city officials, churches and immigrant rights’ groups rally, supplying food, water and medical care and reaching out to family members who might offer assistance. 

And the homeless count, at least briefly, ticks back up. It is Sisyphean work.

To her credit, Bass has staked much of her political credibility on tackling this issue. She is bracingly candid at admitting that it will be a long fight. In fact, in our interview she warned that the overall numbers may increase again in 2023. That’s because some eviction moratoriums enacted during COVID-19 are expiring and thousands could find themselves homeless as a result.

So even as the work to break up encampments takes some homeless off the street, evictions, the economy and a cynical Texas governor add to the challenge. 

“The inflow continues,” Bass said.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....