How California's homelessness crisis surged

“This is decades and decades of failures,” one expert said of the persistent homelessness crisis that continues to plague California.
Image: 2020 homeless count
Kayla Haskell, homeless outreach specialist with Pathways to Housing DC, from right, interviews David Putney, 64, who has been homeless for two years, near the McPherson Square Metro Station in Washington on Jan. 22.Katherine Frey / The Washington Post via Getty Images

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By Alicia Victoria Lozano

LOS ANGELES — The only thing that kept LaRae Cantley going was her three children.

She grew up surrounded by poverty and addiction, but despite her difficulties, she never expected to be homeless.

Yet one day in the late 1990s, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door of her South Los Angeles house and told her and her husband they had five minutes to vacate the property. Cantley was stunned. She knew nothing about her husband’s finances and had no idea he skimped on rent.

With nowhere to go, she sent their three children to live with the children's great-grandparents. She and her husband divorced, and she found herself homeless.

“There was nothing to catch us,” she said.

From left, Rebecca F. Kauma, Jasmine Bridges, Yesenia Jean and Austin Metoyer, take a moment to enter data in a phone app as they volunteer for the 2020 homeless count in Long Beach on Jan. 23.Brittany Murray / MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Cantley, 37, lived on the streets for 15 years. She was among thousands of Californians without a home, a problem that continues to grow. Last year, homelessness rose 16 percent to 151,000 people.

Many blame mental illness and drug addiction for the soaring numbers, but experts say that is only part of the puzzle. The state’s severe housing shortage, which has forced rents to increase at twice the rate of the national average and put the median price of a single family home at $615,000, has also contributed to the crisis.

John Maceri, CEO of the Los Angeles-based social services provider The People Concern, said social safety nets, like affordable housing and job training, are all but gone, leaving already vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

“You reap what you sow,” Maceri said recently.

He was one of 300 volunteers who gathered in Santa Monica last week for an annual homeless count, part of a larger effort in Los Angeles County that spanned three days and covered thousands of square miles. Similar counts took place in San Francisco, San Diego and other parts of the country.

The federally mandated survey stretches to every nook and cul-de-sac. Its mission is simple: using U.S. census tracts, count every person who appears to be experiencing homelessness and report those numbers to the county. The county tallies them up using statistical analysis and sends them to the state, which sends a report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Similar to the census, the federal government doles out resources based on these findings. Cities and counties with the most need typically get the most money.

In Santa Monica, an idyllic coastal oasis in Southern California, the count took on the air of a community fair. Parking attendants ushered hundreds people into St. Monica Catholic Church on a Wednesday night, offering warm drinks and snacks to volunteers who greeted one another. The crowd filled with local residents and city officials was thick with anticipation.

Around 11 p.m., hundreds of volunteers, lawmakers and law enforcement officers embarked on what has become routine for the affluent community. The city was an early adopter of the count, said former mayor and current state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, a Democrat.

Bloom served three terms as Santa Monica’s mayor when homelessness still felt like a local problem. The city, with its soft beaches and year-round sunshine, had always been a magnet for homeless people. Residents and outsiders sang a familiar refrain: People experiencing homelessness were drawn to Santa Monica’s comfortable environment and abundant social services.

“Homelessness has been here for decades,” Bloom said. “But for many of those decades, we really didn’t see it as much as we do today.”

In 2005, when Los Angeles County conducted its first count, more than 82,000 people were reported as homeless, according to the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Authority. By 2019, that number had dropped to 59,000.

Experts say these fluctuations reflect the issue’s complexity and enormity.

“This is decades and decades of failures,” said Heidi Martson, interim executive director of the homeless services authority. “It’s going to take time.”

One of the biggest failures has been state and local leaders' inability or unwillingness to address the high cost of housing. Nearly half of Los Angeles County residents pay 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the housing authority. Even building affordable housing in Los Angeles was estimated in 2016 to cost $414,000 for a two-bedroom unit, according to a city of Los Angeles report "Comprehensive Homelessness Strategy."

Los Angeles County finds housing for 130 people every day, yet 150 people fall into homelessness daily, according to the authority.

“This is truly poverty,” Martson said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, from center, along with Nathan Fletcher, from left, a member of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, talk with Eric, a homeless man outside San Diego City Hall during the annual point-in-time homeless count on Jan. 23.Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP

Two other factors repeatedly come up in discussions about homelessness in California: Gov. Ronald Reagan signing the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967, which ended the practice of admitting patients into psychiatric institutions against their will, and Gov. Jerry Brown reducing the prison population after a federal three-judge panel ordered the state in 2009 to cut the inmate population by 46,000 people.

Neither move came with social safety nets, such as job training and mental health treatment, to ensure these people would land on their feet, said Alise Orduña, Santa Monica's senior adviser on homelessness.

“We needed to help people readjust to society,” she said.

Cantley said she first signed up for housing through the city in 1998, but didn’t receive it until 2012. After spending more than a decade on the street, she found herself at odds with the walls and routines thrust on her.

It took her three years of "damage control" to adjust, she said. She's not alone. In recent years, a new trend has emerged among service providers to pair formerly homeless people with support services.

For Cantley, that meant counseling for domestic abuse and depression, she said. Now, she is an advocate and activist who works with others with similar experiences. But not all people enduring homelessness are able to access those types of resources.

Mike Sanders spent six years in prison for robbery before his release in 2015. During his time behind bars, his mother died and the rest of his family became financially unstable. With no money and no job, Sanders, 43, became homeless. He slept on skid row in downtown Los Angeles for awhile, but it was too dangerous, he said. Church steps and shelters felt safer.

Eventually, he signed up for housing through The People Concern and found a stable home three years later, he said. Now, he lives in a former hotel near 5th and Spring streets downtown, he said.

“I love it,” Sanders said of his home. “I don’t have to share my room, my bathroom, with no one.”

Still, Sanders does not work. His income filters in through panhandling and the state’s General Assistance program. He spends his days circling downtown in a wheelchair, getting food and cash where he can.

“Everything costs money,” he said. “Nothing is free.”