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New Federal Report Shows Scope Of California's Homeless Crisis, Over 160K Homeless Prior To Pandemic

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — The homelessness crisis across the Southland is becoming more pervasive by the day, and a new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Thursday underscored that reality.

homeless Lomita Los Angeles
People gather their belongings and clean up at a homeless encampment off McCoy Avenue and West 253rd Street in Lomita, Calif., on Feb. 25, 2021. (Brittany Murray/Long Beach Press-Telegram/ Getty Images)

The federal report estimates that California's homeless population was at 161,548 people as of January 2020, prior to the pandemic, a 7% increase from 2019. In Los Angeles County, the number jumped 13% over the same time period, to 66,436 by January of 2020.

On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority hosted its first State of Homelessness event with leaders confirming what Californians have all seen — homelessness is surging.

"I believe we have 20,000 more on the streets since the last count," Andy Bales, president and CEO of the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row, said Thursday.

This year, LAHSA was forced to cancel its annual homeless count because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bales has spent his life advocating for those experiencing homelessness.

"I don't think we could have done worse in addressing homelessness," he said. "We were up 32% of deaths on the streets last year over the previous year."

Across the country, the number of people experiencing homelessness grew by 2%.

"I think that when we talk about housing needs, we can't at this point, come up with enough money to take care of all the homeless people in the country," Marcia Fudge, HUD secretary, said.

She said she wants to make temporary pandemic-related funding permanent.

"We want to acknowledge over the past year we're all seeing more tents and more encampments in places we weren't used to seeing them across L.A.," Heidi Marston, of LAHSA, said. "This was largely drive by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance instructing everybody to shelter in place, people practicing social distancing and encampments popping up where maybe before they weren't allowed to."

LAHSA said it did have some success getting people inside during the beginning of the COVID Crisis.

"Our system really pivoted quickly to a rapid life-saving mission at the outset of the COVID-19  pandemic," LAHSA Executive Director Marston said Thursday. "We had this infusion of state and federal funds and we got all parts of L.A. — 88 cities, county, providers, philanthropy — all on the same page and working toward the same goal of getting as many people inside as possible."

But that begs the question of what happened after that initial success and why are so many people still ending up on the streets? According to Bales, local and state leaders dropped the ball.

"We needed to ramp up Project Roomkey, we needed to keep community rec centers open, we needed to go ahead with Project Homekey — which was going to purchase hotels," he said. "We need to ramp up more shelters since we can't have as many people at each shelter. We did everything the opposite of what we should have done."

Bales said that the state needs to focus on getting more housing options to get people sheltered.

"We need immediate places for people to go, and we need immediate innovative affordable places like tiny homes and mobile homes that can be quickly constructed," he said. "And we need to move back to recovery."

The HUD report found that there were about 580,000 homeless people nationwide in early 2020. According to HUD, California had the biggest jump in people experiencing homelessness from 2019 to 2020. Oregon and Florida had the biggest decreases during the same time period.

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