Sat, Jun

Homelessness Crisis in LA and SF: Numbers Games Hide Policy Failures


iAUDIT! - It’s no secret that the two California cities with the largest homeless populations are Los Angeles and San Francisco.  LAHSA has yet to release the results of its 2024 PIT count, but the 2023 survey showed at least 75,500 homeless people live in the County. San Francisco, with about 7.5 percent of LA County’s population, has 8,323 unhoused people according to its 2024 count; a substantial reduction from the ten-year high of 9,808 in 2019, but higher than the last few years.  Both cities’ homeless populations suffer from high incidences of untreated mental illness and substance abuse problems.  San Francisco, especially, has a reputation for open air drug use concentrated in its Tenderloin and Civic Center areas. Both cities share common problems: providing enough housing, dealing with service-resistant homeless people, increasing program costs, and a general population that just wants to see some kind of progress. Both cities also seem to share an aversion to the truth when it comes to homelessness numbers. 

We already know LAHSA’s annual PIT counts are little less than fantasy.  They exclude thousands of people living along freeways, riverbeds, and drainage culverts.  The counts are based on assumptions of how many people live in tents and RV’s, and volunteers are told to avoid potentially dangerous locations like alleys, where many unhoused people seek refuge.  Given these limitations, some advocates and professional survey analysts think LAHSA undercounts the homeless population by half. Regardless of the methodology or accuracy, the counts have steadily increased for the past 10 years. 

San Francisco, on the other hand, claims unsheltered homelessness fell in 2023. That claim is indicative of how both cities desperately try to spin the numbers to make them look better than they are. In San Francisco, unsheltered homelessness did indeed decrease by 16 percent, but overall homelessness increased by seven percent since 2022 (San Francisco performs its count every other year).  The number of homeless families almost doubled. Chronic homelessness increased nine percent and the number of people living in their cars rose by 37 percent.  Yet San Francisco Mayor London Breed chose to focus on the one positive component in the count, which actually had nothing to do with the number of homeless—merely their situations. 

Compare that to LAHSA’s 2023 PIT count, which showed a nine percent increase in overall homelessness, a 14 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness and an 18 percent increase in chronic homelessness. Yet LAHSA tried to shift the focus to the fact it provided more beds and processed people faster than the previous year.  Both cities desperately try to deflect their inability to reduce homelessness by focusing on very narrow elements that may show some kind of progress. 

San Francisco also presents a case study on the limits of Housing First, and what may be in store for LA. According to an article in the San Francisco Standard, the City is running out of funding for key financial assistance and housing programs. The fact is, there is only so much money that can be spent on homelessness interventions until an agency comes up against the law of diminishing returns; more effort is needed to achieve fewer outcomes. The inherent weaknesses and inefficiencies of No Barrier Housing First are exposed as more and more people become eligible for its programs.  Because it focuses on the process of housing people instead of the outcome of reducing homelessness, problems like “housing” the same people multiple times, or paying for repetitive outreach actions increase the financial burden as programs expand., but fewer people are housed.  The failure to produce true outputs—exiting people to stable housing situations--is like a clogged drain; more water is pouring in, but none is draining.  For homelessness programs, people are piling up behind those who came before, but few are escaping the system.  As Jess Echeverry, Executive Director of SOFESA, a homelessness program in LA says in this interview, the current system is creating generational homelessness, where families become dependent on the shelter/housing system because they don’t receive the support and skills to live on their own. 

In Los Angeles, we can use Inside Safe as an example of the law of diminishing returns. According to the City’s homeless program website, each room costs an average of $117.40 per night. LAHSA said there are 32,680 unsheltered homeless people in the City of L.A, Reducing the number of rooms needed by 30 percent to allow for family housing nets a total of 22,880 rooms needed to house the city’s unsheltered population. At $117.40 per room, the cost would be $2,686,110 per night. At that cost, the program could operate only 93 days using the current budget of $250 million. Given the City’s budget restraints, it is highly unlikely those costs could be sustained indefinitely.  Inside Safe program reports reveal weaknesses in the system, such as: 

  • LAHSA’s poor data practices allow some vacant rooms to go unreported, meaning the City is paying for rooms nobody is using.  
  • The reports admit an unknown number of clients are the same people being housed multiple times.  
  • As an example of the “clogged drain” analogy, of the 2,482 people entering the program, only 440, or a little under 18 percent, have exited to permanent housing. Of the 586 people who exited the system, 504, or 20 percent of clients, exited back into homelessness. 504 is about 15 percent more than the 440 who have been permanently housed and represent 504 people who could be recycled through the system. 

The nonsensical numbers game played by the City is borne out by the evidence before our eyes.  The City claims 21,000 people have been sheltered or housed in the last year. 21,000 is more than 45 percent of the 46,260 homeless in Los Angeles.  Reductions anywhere near that magnitude would have an obvious effect on the number of tents, RV’s and encampments on our streets. Yet there has been no such decrease.  21,000 merely reflects 21,000 processes—21,000 instances that homelessness programs took some type of shelter or housing action. 

As a December 2023 LAist article explains, because of poor data collection practices and inconsistent record-keeping among various City and County agencies, it cannot be stated with certainty how many people have been sheltered, how long they stayed sheltered, or when they left the system. We could blame the disjointed structure of homelessness programs in L.A., where the City, County, and LAHSA have overlapping responsibilities.  But articles on San Francisco’s program report the same kind of problems (hence the disconnect between the increase in homelessness versus the claimed decrease in unsheltered homelessness). This is quite remarkable give that the City and County are one in the same in San Francico—it is a consolidated city/county government, so there should be no organizational silos preventing coordination, as there are in L.A.  Rather, it is the lack of accountability and true performance measurement described in the State Auditor’s April 2024 report on homelessness programs. Program managers have little incentive to do the hard work of gathering useful data or ensuring coordinated services when they know they won’t be accountable for results. 

The problems in Los Angeles and San Francisco are indicative of the larger failure of Housing First policies.  You can’t make good numbers out of bad results. People aren’t staying housed because they are not receiving the support services they need to remain housed. Huge amounts of money are being spent merely to put someone in an apartment with little regard for what happens to them afterwards.  It is the structure of Housing First itself that plants the roots of failure. Bureaucratic inefficiencies merely make it worse. 

The structure of Housing First contains the seeds of its own failure.  Everything about Housing First is based on voluntary participation.  Regardless of how much outreach a person receives, it is up to him or her to choose to enter the shelter and housing system.  Again, the law of diminishing returns applies.  People who want shelter or treatment will accept offers of assistance, but those who are unable or unwilling remain on the streets.  Since there are few coercive incentives to make people enter shelters, (even the vaunted CARE Court system is voluntary), ever-increasing resources are consumed for ever-decreasing gains.  The nature of L.A.’s homeless population is evidence of this failure: we see increases in chronic and unsheltered homelessness that are disproportionately higher than increases in general homelessness.  These are the people who will not or cannot make decisions in their own best interests, and for whom the current system has no ability to move off the streets.  That is why more than 73 percent of L.A.’s homeless people are unsheltered. 

Until some kind of coercive element is included in homelessness interventions, it is highly likely we will continue the see the same scenarios repeat themselves: a growing percentage of unsheltered and chronic homeless, spiraling housing costs for both construction and repairs, and no real progress being made. As we saw in San Francisco, the more people who are brought into the system, the more the system will cost because so few successfully exit to mainstream housing.  Housing First is a failure regardless of location or form of government. New models, already proven to be successful, must be included in the system before we see any real progress.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)