Editorial: Here's how Los Angeles can help prevent people from falling into homelessness

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Laura Ayala, left, a tenant who lives with her four children in a two bedroom apartment, signs up for an information seminar on tenants rights with Bianca Lopez, 25, right, an outreach worker with We Are Los Angeles, a project of the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles, on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. The Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles, a nonprofit closely associated with City Hall, shifted its focus last year to preventing homelessness through preventing evictions. Outreach workers who visit neighborhoods across Los Angeles where tenants are at risk of eviction and seek to connect those tenants with information and resources to help them keep their homes. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Laura Ayala, left, signs up in January for an information seminar on tenants rights with Bianca Lopez, an outreach worker for We Are Los Angeles, a project of the Mayor's Fund for Los Angeles. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

There’s no question that Los Angeles needs more permanent housing for people who are already homeless. That is the city’s and county’s main responsibility and should receive the most funding from resources dedicated to ending homelessness. But without more homelessness prevention, waves of people will continue to end up on the streets, replacing those who move into housing and leaving Los Angeles always a step behind in grappling with this crisis.

It is imperative to catch people before they fall into homelessness. Even as L.A. County has made more than 20,000 permanent housing placements annually from 2020 to 2022, the unhoused population has gone up steadily from 52,765 in 2018 to 75,518 in 2023.

Read more: Editorial: Bass had a strong first year on homelessness. Year 2, L.A. needs more housing

"Prevention is the thing that will change the face of homelessness in this county,” said Cheri Todoroff, the executive director of the L.A. County Homeless Initiative. She recently said that if the flow of people into homelessness could be prevented, the county could solve homelessness in three years. Yet programs to help people stay housed are underfunded, scattered across different agencies and difficult to access. That's a problem.

Numerous programs provide rental subsidies to help people keep their housing. In Los Angeles County, the Department of Mental Health, Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Public Social Services and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority all offer some sort of homelessness prevention programs. Officials estimate that these programs prevented 31,570 L.A. County residents from becoming homeless between July 2017 and September 2023.

Read more: Not every life is a 'success story.' Some land in homelessness. But everyone deserves dignity

There are other programs as well. The city of L.A. set aside $30 million from Measure ULA, the tax on real estate transactions over $5 million for an emergency renters assistance program. Thousands of tenants applied in the fall and most are still waiting to hear if they have been approved.

The homelessness prevention efforts will be put to the test this month when the last eviction protections in the city expired and landlords were allowed to proceed with evictions against tenants for unpaid rent incurred between Oct. 1, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2023. A University of Pennsylvania study on rental debt in the city of L.A. estimated that 60% of the 100,000 to 150,000 households behind on rent as of last August wouldn't be able to pay back rent by the Feb. 1 deadline.

Eviction protections appear to help. Homelessness did go up in 2022, but only by 4%, a fraction of the 12.7% increase found in the January 2020 annual homeless count. Officials attribute that to the pandemic-era eviction moratorium.

Read more: Opinion: Homeless, when you just can't afford the rent

As the Measure ULA fund grows, so should the amount set aside for renter assistance. But eviction protection is not the universe of homelessness prevention. In fact, most people in California on the verge of homelessness are not even leaseholders — the people whom eviction defense and assistance is geared toward.

According to the California Statewide Study of People Experiencing Homelessness released in 2023, barely a third of people surveyed who lost their housing were leaseholders. Nearly half were people who lived in housing but didn’t hold the lease. And 19% came from an institutional setting such as a prison or jail. That shows why L.A. needs a broad array of prevention programs, including rental subsidies and guidance in finding housing after leaving prison or the foster care system.

Many of the people surveyed didn’t even know about rental assistance programs. They were more likely to seek help from friends or family, not government agencies or nonprofits.

That’s all the more reason that city and county officials must publicize and promote the availability of assistance. An estimated 500,000 tenants in the county are severely burdened by rent, meaning they spend half their income on housing. Most will not lose their housing, but it's both compassionate and cost-effective to help those who are alarmingly close to falling into homelessness. It’s less expensive to keep someone in housing with temporary monthly subsidies, some less than $500, than to put them up in interim housing that costs several thousands of dollars per month.

Policy experts have ideas to improve outreach. The homelessness study authors recommend providing prevention services at various agencies and offices where people go for social services, healthcare or domestic violence services, for example. Or agencies could proactively reach out to people identified as at high risk of losing their housing, Janey Rountree, executive director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA, suggested. Rountree helped develop a computer model that pinpoints users of L.A. County services who may be most vulnerable to falling into homelessness. The county’s Homeless Prevention Unit uses the model to find and reach out to them.

We know how to solve homelessness — with housing. Helping people stay in their homes is one of the best ways to end this crisis. Prevention is difficult work but it's essential.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.