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Homelessness Falls in America But Rises in Big Cities

Homelessness is on the rise in many of America's biggest cities as wealth concentrates in urban centers, elevating rents and squeezing supplies of affordable housing in places like Los Angeles and New York, new federal data show.

By James Nash and Esme E. Deprez

Homelessness is on the rise in many of America's biggest cities as wealth concentrates in urban centers, elevating rents and squeezing supplies of affordable housing in places like Los Angeles and New York, new federal data show.

Homelessness in and around big U.S. cities increased 3 percent this year, even as the nation's overall rate declined 2 percent, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released Thursday. Nowhere has the problem grown more acute than in the Los Angeles region, where the homeless population rose 20 percent, to more than 41,000 people. Los Angeles has the largest unsheltered population in the U.S., according to the department.

"We're now a city of shanties," said City Councilman Mike Bonin.

The scourge of urban homelessness shows that while broad indicators such as employment and stock indexes are on the upswing, recovering economies are pushing housing out of reach and doing little to boost the incomes of the poor. Almost 47 million people in the U.S. lived in poverty last year, 2.3 percentage points higher than in 2007, before the recession began.

Homelessness increased in New York by 11 percent from 2014, by 13 percent in Seattle and 8 percent in Chicago, data show. Major cities accounted for almost half of all homeless people in the U.S., and more than one in five were either in New York or Los Angeles, the report said.

The estimates from the "2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress" come from data collected by more than 3,000 cities and counties that do a census each year on one night during the last week in January. The figures are an imperfect snapshot. While some entities don't count people on the street as well as those in shelters every year, the numbers are the most extensive accounting available of a fluid and often-evasive population.

Many municipalities have outlawed panhandling, sleeping in public and distributing food, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Seattle has sought to regulate encampments and declared a state of emergency along with Honolulu, which was sued after clearing such makeshift settlements.

In the western Los Angeles beach neighborhood of Venice, police at daybreak rouse homeless people from their slumber to boot them off their patches of sand and grass. Sanitation crews spray the ground with a mixture of bleach and water. Within hours, the homeless reclaim their spots, and the scene repeats itself days later.

Venice, emblematic of up-and-coming communities across the country, has changed from funky, seedy and affordable to an enclave where the median home is worth $1.4 million, according to Zillow. Police have gotten more aggressive in breaking up homeless camps, said Michael Gilliam, 59, who said he's lacked a permanent place to live since 2003.

"There's a lot more tensions between the business owners and the homeless here," he said recently as city crews hauled away peoples' belongings. "The shelters are a farce. All of these things cater to a prison mentality. I'm a survivor, dude."

Spilling out of its historical hub of Skid Row downtown, homelessness in Los Angeles has flourished during years of government neglect, said Gary Blasi, an emeritus law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who has studied the phenomenon since the 1980s.

The city spends less per capita on shelter and services than any other major municipality, treating homelessness mostly as a criminal matter by having police dismantle camps and make arrests for minor crimes such as trespassing, he said.

"This is a moral outrage," said County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "It represents a failure of both the public and private sector."

About half of L.A. households spend at least 30 percent of their income on housing, including costs such as utilities and property taxes. That's the highest proportion among 381 U.S. metropolitan areas, according to a report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Mark Miranda said he's lived on Los Angeles streets since a dispute with his business partner led him to lose his landscaping company 16 years ago. Dressed in green pajama pants and a cut-off shirt in the middle of a recent day, he sprawled on the lawn at Echo Park, near downtown, as unkempt men pushed shopping carts among coffee vendors and young people read tablet computers by the lake.

Miranda said that while L.A. has jobs for manual laborers, his 40-year-old body is no longer suited for that work.

"There's too many people out here like me," Miranda said.

Responding to what activists call a humanitarian crisis, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council say they're taking action. They've pledged to build more affordable housing and spend an additional $100 million on measures such as new shelters and vouchers to temporarily cover rent and security deposits.

In an interview last week at Bloomberg's Los Angeles office, Garcetti blamed losses of state and federal funding for affordable housing, along with an increase in cheaper recreational drugs.

"I won't accept it," the 44-year-old Democrat said. "It's our obligation, both morally and financially, to do something."

He said the city has housed 11,000 people since he took office in July 2013, but that the homeless population has increased faster than the ability to build housing. He also said he's trying to get city, Los Angeles County and federal agencies, which haven't worked well together in the past, to better coordinate services.

Activists such as Steve Diaz, of the L.A. Community Action Network, remain skeptical.

"The words are one thing, but their actions are another," Diaz said.

(Mark Niquette contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Bloomberg News

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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