During the last two years, homelessness in the city and county of Los Angeles spiked 12 percent, according to the biennial Los Angeles Homeless Count, taken in January and released on May 11. The increase in the number of homeless men, women and children was even greater — 16 percent — in the Los Angeles Continuum of Care, which covers Los Angeles County but excludes Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach.

Across the county, some 44,000 homeless people were counted, compared to about 39,000 in 2013, with almost 26,000 in the City of Los Angeles alone.

The rise in L.A.’s homeless population came as no real surprise to Msgr. Gregory Cox, executive director of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles. “Obviously, an issue that Los Angeles has is a high unemployment rate — 7.5 percent — and it’s way above the rest of the country, which is about 5.4 percent,” he told The Tidings. “And, of course, the lack of affordable housing, which the study cited, is a big factor.

“But the increasing number of these homeless living in their cars, beat-up SUVs and old trailers — not only in Venice and on the Westside, where it’s been an issue for years — that was a surprise.”    

Angelenos can attest to the growing number of tents along highways like the Pasadena Freeway, makeshift shelters only blocks away from gentrified Downtown condos and, of course, all kinds of vehicles packed to the gills with belongings. And it’s hard to find a freeway on- or off-ramp these days that doesn’t have a person holding up a cardboard sign with “homeless” scribbled on it.

Still, many of the statistics in the biennial homeless count done by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) were alarming.

Most of the homeless population didn’t live in public or private shelters (28,948), while 12,226 did. The number of mentally ill homeless went up by 23 percent.

Down-and-out families increased from 6,678 to 7,505. About 300, tragically, were unaccompanied children.

And the ranks of the chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or more, or who’ve had at least four homeless episodes in the last three years — rose by an amazing 60 percent.   

Perhaps most startling, however, the number of tents, cardboard and scrap-wood homemade shelters, along with vehicles where homeless individuals and families were living, jumped by 85 percent in just two years, from 5,335 to 9,535.

“It is troubling to hear of this increase in the number of homeless persons in Los Angeles County,” observed Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “It is imperative that local efforts are redoubled to secure more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing for our residents, to bring about a living wage for households struggling to make ends meet and to put in place crisis response systems that prevent and end homelessness in a coordinated manner.”

nFailed public policies

But the executive director of Los Angeles’ Integrated Recovery Network, which helps people who have been homeless with housing, access to health care and jobs, maintains LAHSA’s 2015 study has a serious flaw. Attorney Marsha Temple says it leaves out two key causes of the burgeoning number of homeless in Los Angeles.

She stresses that elected officials have to stop looking at homelessness as an isolated problem. Moreover, lawmakers must do something about their shortsighted failed policies.

“The twin drivers [of L.A.’s homelessness] are mass incarceration and our broken foster care system,” the lawyer, who specializes in health-care issues, pointed out. “Fifty percent of the young people in foster care will be homeless and 70 percent will become involved in the justice system. So that’s not just a failure. That’s a catastrophe.”

But Temple says the biggest public policy failure is mass incarceration, which was compounded by Sacramento’s prison realignment. The law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011, shifted the responsibility for incarcerating lower-level offenders, who previously would have served their time in state prisons, to already overcrowded county facilities.    

“People don’t think,” she noted. “I mean, they just don’t think. OK, so you send someone away for six years to prison or now with prison realignment to Men’s Central Jail here in Los Angeles. And then you let them out. Where are they going to go? There’s no money for housing.

“And then throw in the war on drugs,” she added. “Putting these people in jail only makes their symptoms worse. And then, again, you let them out without any services. What did you think was going to happen? Their symptoms flare up. So it’s a formula for disaster.”

Temple stresses that the increase in L.A.’s homeless isn’t really due to middle class people losing their jobs or not being able to afford an apartment to rent or pay their mortgage.  

“Have you been to Skid Row lately?” she asked. “Have you seen many middle class people hanging out there? No, you see sick people with serious disabilities, addictions and mental illness. And these sick people need medical care.”

nSociety’s responsibility

Msgr. Cox concurs with the anti-homeless advocate about a badly broken foster care system being a leading factor in L.A.’s growing number of homeless individuals and families.

“Once a child leaves the foster care system, there’s really nothing available for him or her,” he reported. “Society doesn’t have much to provide them. They get out and there’s no socialization.”

The same goes for mass incarceration, with juveniles being released from probation camps and adults coming out of jails and prisons with little support or services.

“So I believe those two elements are key factors,” he said. “My overall thoughts about homelessness, one, it’s not just the government’s or faith-based communities’ responsibility. It’s all of our responsibility. This is society’s responsibility. I think with homelessness, it’s a problem when we keep pointing the finger at somebody else to solve.”

The priest also strongly believes there’s no one simple solution. After being a social worker, supervisor and administrator at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles for 30 years, he says lack of jobs and affordable housing are big issues, but not the only reasons for L.A. being the nation’s homeless capital.   

There’s also mental illness. “You know, for some people, there may be very little chance for any kind of rehabilitation for them to be self-sufficient,” he pointed out. “Because they no longer have the intellectual capability or the mental capability because of their mental health problems.”

Drugs and alcohol are another factor. He reports that Catholic Charities across the U.S. are seeing a growing number of college students who are addicted and homeless.

nBreakup of families

“But I want to go even a step further,” said Msgr. Cox. “That a part of this is the breakup of the family. They roughly say about 43 percent of children are born outside of wedlock today. And with them, the poverty rate is greater, incarceration is greater, drug addiction and alcoholism is higher with those youth and so is dropping out of high school. So I would just include the lack of family upbringing for so many kids.”

When he first started at Catholic Charities three decades ago, the primary population the agency served was homeless single men. Then about 20 years ago, there were more homeless women to deal with. And now whole families are on the street, desperate to find housing.

Homelessness has become such a familiar sight in Los Angeles, he says everybody tends to think some government agency or faith-based organization is going to deal with the problem. But he knows that no single entity can come close to addressing homelessness in the Southland right now.

“It’s a complicated question,” observed Msgr. Cox. “And I think that anybody who gives an easy solution, like unemployment, is wrong. How do we address it the best we can as a society? Society as a whole, the citizen, needs to get involved with groups and organizations to help these people get back on their feet.”