It is time to declare that housing is a human right and ensure access to this basic human need for all people. We know that lack of access to housing reduces life expectancy by an average of 20 years and harms health in multiple ways. It also impacts public health as thousands of people are living on our streets without access to hygiene, food, or personal safety. In addition, it exacts a heavy cost on government institutions. Furthermore, it creates a cycle of despair that keeps victims trapped, destroys their options, and wears down their hope for the future.
Despite a historic alignment of public and private resources, passage of a new sales tax measure, and over 22,000 people being placed in housing during the year, the numbers of persons experiencing homelessness continue to grow due to economic conditions that affect people differentially based on race and class. The point-in-time homeless count, which happens each year in January, demonstrated increases from January 2019 to January 2020 of 12% for a grand total of 66,000 persons on our streets. Senior homelessness increased by 20%, perpetuating a trend of chronic adult homelessness that people often age into. Access additional data and detail on the LAHSA Homeless Count here: LAHSA.
Dr. Ben Henwood, professor and researcher at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, leads a team with the USC Schaefer Center for Health Policy and Economics to collect and analyze demographic and youth data for the annual count. He has worked with LAHSA to ensure that strategies to improve data accuracy have improved each year, providing greater data reliability and validity to help us understand the problem in LA County. However, the systems we have designed to fix the problem of homelessness are cumbersome and onerous even for the many compassionate and hardworking homeless outreach and placement workers who try to get people housed every day. Consumers do not feel empowered and rarely have a voice when systems are being designed for them. Our current situation represents decades of systemic neglect for the poorest among us, who have fallen off our meager safety net and then been blamed for it.
The city and county of Los Angeles have dedicated significant attention and resources to ending homelessness. In terms of housing development, 700 permanent housing units have opened since July 2019 and over 2,000 additional units will open over the next year. In total, over 10,000 total permanent housing units are in the pipeline. There has been a commitment to transition into permanent housing for the 15.000 senior or disabled persons who have been targeted for temporary shelter in hotels through COVID 19 -related Project Roomkey. However, housing each person requires securing an income source, a rental subsidy, and an available unit matched to their needs. Housing as a human right might look very different from our current structure. Let’s create a vision of decent housing at affordable prices in every neighborhood; a safety net without holes that lifts up the poorest among us to a basic level of support. It requires a commitment to social justice; an investment in the dignity and worth of all individuals, and an inclusive spirit.
USC’s Initiative to Eliminate Homelessness has endeavored to contribute: we engage in scientific research to understand the problem and study potential solutions; we prepare students to make better polices and provide high quality services; and we encourage the belief that everyone has worth-no one deserves to be thrown away. Our community’s educational institutions can be part of the solution when they take on a mission that directs energy to the wicked problem of homelessness.