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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Homelessness and Public Health in Los Angeles


Los Angeles faces a housing crisis of unprecedented scale. After years of underinvestment, in 2016/2017 LA County voters approved Measures H and HHH, which provided an infusion of resources for homeless services, permanent housing, and integrated outreach through the LA County Homeless Initiative (HI). An estimated 58,936 individuals in LA County remain homeless as of January 2019, 75% of them unsheltered and living on streets, in tents, or encampments. Our best estimates suggest that the homeless population has grown since 2017.

HI takes a Housing First approach to homelessness, with the largest amount of total funds allocated to housing solutions. However, rehousing is often subject to delays in construction and case management. These delays, combined with persistent market forces driving new homelessness, have left the county well short of its targets. While no forecasts were issued, the initial gap analysis for HI had assumed a 34% reduction in the total homeless count from 2016 to 2019. The count has in fact increased by 26% over that period, meaning 28,000 more homeless clients than anticipated on any night. Whereas cities with comparable homeless crises such as New York have focused on increasing the availability of emergency shelters and safe havens in addition to permanent housing, LA County’s relatively low investment in transitional options has resulted in persistent levels of unsheltered homelessness.

Research has shown that homelessness has severe health consequences. Homeless individuals have a high risk of mortality, with a recent LA County Medical Examiner report finding an average age of death of 48 for women and 51 for men. Homeless individuals have much higher risks of mental illness, substance abuse, infectious disease, chronic illness, violence, and reproductive health risks than the general population. Much less is known about the health burdens associated with being unsheltered, but most evidence points to substantially greater health risks given the more intense exposures to violence, weather, pollution, poor sanitation, and behavioral risk. Research is just beginning to quantify the burdens of living on the streets.

Our analysis of the LA County homelessness response drew on expert interviews, data analysis, and document review. Beyond the growing numerical gap between HI’s targets and actual trends, we identified five critical service gaps that require immediate attention: 

Taking a person-centered approach that recognizes both the diversity of client needs and the limitations of existing resources, yet honors the principle that everyone deserves housing; Improving access to emergency shelters by reducing legal and political barriers to construction and adopting “low barrier shelters” that facilitate entry; Delivering comprehensive street medicine and other services to unsheltered homeless populations using evidence-based models that support the path to housing and recovery Adopting more extensive outreach models that engage citizens, empower homeless clients and leverage mobile technology so that case workers can focus on clients most in need; Strengthening data collection and research methods to understand the consequences of unsheltered homelessness, pilot new service models, and evaluate rehousing efforts.

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