Los Angeles: Why tens of thousands of people homeless live on streets

Los Angeles is known worldwide as a city of glamour but on a visit this week, US President Donald Trump said its growing homelessness problem could “destroy” it. So how did LA end up in this situation?

You do not have to walk far in Los Angeles to see people sleeping rough. Many spend their nights in temporary shelters, or other places not meant for human habitation – on the street, in an abandoned building, or a transport hub.

The number of homeless people in Los Angeles has grown by 33% over the past four years. Every night, nearly 60,000 Los Angeles County residents are homeless, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has found.

A total of 85% of Los Angeles’s homeless people are adults without children, 70% are male, and 44% are black, even though they account for only 8% of Los Angeles residents.

SRC: Getty images

And Los Angeles has the largest number in the United States of homeless people who do not sleep in emergency shelters:

  • a fifth sleep in tents and makeshift shelters
  • a quarter sleep in the open
  • 30% sleep in vehicles that are often decrepit and inoperable

Money is at the root of the city’s homeless crisis – jobs that pay too little and housing that costs too much. Half of homeless people say they do not have housing because they lost their jobs and cannot pay rent.

Only 21% of new homeless people in the city report having a mental disability compared with 55% of those who have been homeless for longer, suggesting rates of mental illness go up as people are homeless for longer.

Blue-collar workers in Los Angeles were able to earn middle-class wages and buy homes until the Cold War ended, nearly 30 years ago. The government cutting back on military expenditure meant the national defence industry, which was centred in Los Angeles, shrank by more than half.

Well paid jobs were replaced by minimum-wage jobs.

Little new housing – especially lower-cost rental housing – has been built over the past 30 years, even though Los Angeles’s population has grown by 15%.

The result has been steady rent increases that have made housing unaffordable for many working-poor families.

Only a small percentage of housing is subsidised by government. The vast majority of rental housing is privately owned and rents are set at the free-market rate.

More than 780,000 people in Los Angeles spend more than 90% of their income on rent – and these precariously housed individuals are at high risk of homelessness.

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