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High-cost US Cities See Homeless Population Grow


Homelessness is increasing in Los Angeles, and the signs are visible. From tents under freeways and shopping carts at street corners, to people begging for money outside fast-food restaurants, the number of homeless people in Los Angeles county has risen by 23 percent, to nearly 58,000. It is a life Destiny Prescott knows all too well.

“I was sleeping in a car; I was sleeping at the beach, pregnant. I was four months pregnant at the time,” Prescott remembered. She grew up in an unstable home and ended up using drugs and alcohol, then lost her job and her home.

Substance abuse is one cause of homelessness. Others include domestic violence, mental and physical disabilities. However, an even larger cause is due to economic factors. Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, said this occurs when a tight rental market develops in a city that already has a high poverty rate.

"As the economy picks up steam, there’s more spending power [that] comes into the rental market, and a lot of it goes out again as rent increases," Lynn said. "Rents are moving up $100, $200 [a month]. No one’s income is keeping pace with that."

A homeless person rests in the grass in downtown Los Angeles in June 2017. The number of homeless people in Los Angeles county has risen by 23 percent, to nearly 58,000. (E. Lee/VOA)
A homeless person rests in the grass in downtown Los Angeles in June 2017. The number of homeless people in Los Angeles county has risen by 23 percent, to nearly 58,000. (E. Lee/VOA)

US homelessness down 3% overall

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development covering 2015-2016, indicates a three-percent drop in homelessness nationwide, but at the same time, the number of homeless people increased in 13 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, home of the nation's capital.

California is one of those 13 states, and it has one of the highest homeless populations in the country.

In cities such as Los Angeles, “the rich are getting richer and the middle class is slowly disappearing,” said Tanya Tull, a homeless advocate who founded Partnering for Change, an organization that helps with stable housing for children and families.

Venice, a beach community in Los Angeles, is a place where people in homeless encampments live side-by-side with residents of multimillion-dollar homes.

“Residents find homeless people ... defecating in their backyard,” said William Hawkins, chairman of the Venice Homeless Committee and a resident.

“It’s not about criminalizing homelessness. It’s simply criminalizing criminal behavior and when you have an encampment like this, that from midnight to four o’clock becomes a night club and an area where people are doing drugs, it’s not fair to the residents,” said Hawkins.

A man pushes a cart in the beach community of Venice in Los Angeles, June 2017. (E. Lee/VOA)
A man pushes a cart in the beach community of Venice in Los Angeles, June 2017. (E. Lee/VOA)

'Housing First' approach

To reduce the number of homeless people, one approach adopted by Los Angeles and other parts of the country is the Housing First model. These programs put homeless people into permanent housing without requirements such attending parenting classes or being free of addiction. Advocates say that by focusing on solving the housing problem without preconditions, people are better able to address the other problems in their lives.

“The human mind needs to have a home, a safe space, and so whatever it takes we should be developing innovative approaches to creating those safe spaces that people control. It is a basic human right,” said Tanya Tull, who has been advocating for the Housing First approach for the last three decades.

“You put them in housing and then you wrap around cares. You have home visits and case management and health care and mental health care,” said Tessa Madden Storms, senior director of development and communications for PATH, a family of agencies that work to end homelessness in California.

Destiny Prescott and her daughter found help at a housing program called PATH Gramercy.

“It makes me feel like a good mom," explained Prescott. "We’re in our own space. We get to lock our door. We have our key. It just feels nice. It makes me feel good.”

While Los Angeles works on building new housing and turning existing buildings into permanent housing for the homeless, advocates and citizens such as those in the Venice Homeless Committee also are working on other approaches, such as reuniting the homeless with their families.

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