Staggering homeless count stuns LA officials

Updated 1:03 PM EDT, Thu June 6, 2019
Belongings of the homeless crowd a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in Skid Row on May 30, 2019. - The city of Los Angeles on May 29 agreed to allow homeless people on Skid Row to keep their property and not have it seized, providing the items are not bulky or hazardous. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Belongings of the homeless crowd a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk in Skid Row on May 30, 2019. - The city of Los Angeles on May 29 agreed to allow homeless people on Skid Row to keep their property and not have it seized, providing the items are not bulky or hazardous. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
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(CNN) —  

The stunning increase in homelessness announced in Los Angeles this week — up 16% over last year citywide — was an almost incomprehensible conundrum given the nation’s booming economy and the hundreds of millions of dollars that city, county and state officials have directed toward the problem.

But the homelessness crisis gripping Los Angeles is one that has been many years in the making with no easy fix. It is a problem driven by an array of complex factors, including rising rents, a staggering shortage of affordable housing units, resistance to new shelters and housing developments in suburban neighborhoods, and, above all, the lack of a cohesive safety net for thousands of people struggling with mental health problems, addiction and, in some cases, recent exits from the criminal justice system that have left them with no other options beyond living on the streets.

“It is the height of contradiction that in the midst of great prosperity across the Golden State, we are also seeing unprecedented increases in homelessness,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a key proponent of the 2017 county sales tax known as Measure H that is raising about $355 million annually for homelessness services over ten years.

“This data is stunning from the perspective that we had hoped that things would be trending differently, but we will not ignore our realities,” Ridley-Thomas said after the numbers were released. “No one can ignore the income insecurity, the financial stress that is being experienced throughout the population. … This is a state that is the wealthiest in the nation, and, at the same time, it is the most impoverished.”

The new homeless count released Tuesday by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority showed nearly 59,000 people living in the streets across Los Angeles County, a 12% increase over the prior year; and 36,300 homeless people within the city limits of LA, a 16% increase over last year’s count.

While those figures were shocking to many Americans who view Los Angeles mainly as a city of glittering wealth, they came as less of a surprise to millions of Angelenos.

For several years now, the city’s residents have watched tent encampments spring up far beyond the downtown area known as Skid Row – where LA’s homeless population and services have historically been concentrated – to their neighborhood sidewalks, freeway embankments, city and county parks, along business corridors and into some of the most affluent neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Beyond the well-being of the city’s homeless population, the encampments have raised a broad array of public heath and safety concerns. Los Angeles Fire Department officials determined, for example, that the massive Skirball blaze that burned homes in Bel-Air and torched the hillsides along the 405 freeway in December 2017 was sparked by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment nearby.

In and around Skid Row, scores of business owners who warehouse their goods in that industrial area downtown have pressed the city to do more about the rising number of tent fires. In one of the most frightening developments, some of the fires are being lit by gang members who try to collect rent from tent-dwellers on certain blocks, according to law enforcement officials and homeless people living in tents interviewed by CNN.