In LA, Where the Homeless are and Where Complaints about Homeless Come from Don’t Match Up

Bill Boyarsky
Columnist for LA Observed and former reporter, editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times

The fewer the homeless in a neighborhood, the more residents complain about their presence.  As the headline on a study by USC journalists and other researchers put it: “In some neighborhoods hundreds of calls about encampments but only a few people living on the street.”

The study, covering the first six months of the year, was completed last month by Crosstown, a non-profit news organization that is part of USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Working with the Integrated Media Systems Center at the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering and mappers from SC’s Spatial Sciences Institute, the journalists assemble and analyze data they hope will guide policy makers.  Among the topics covered on the Crosstown web site https://xtown.la/ are crime, traffic, and air quality. In charge is publisher and editor Gabriel Kahn, a USC journalism professor.

The homeless study is important because it reduces to hard data a subject usually discussed with more heat than facts.

The study used the 2019 homeless count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.  It added up to 36,165. Of these, 27,221 live in tents, some on the sidewalk. Others are in parks, under freeways, in the canyons or wherever else they can find space.

The Annenberg researchers compared these numbers with calls to the city’s 311 line, which gets complaints about poor city services, including failures to deal with homeless encampments.

The researchers found “There’s a wide divergence in the way neighborhoods across Los Angeles approach the homeless crisis.”

Downtown, which includes Skid Row, has the largest homeless population, with 4,037 unsheltered people, according to the count. But it logged many fewer calls per capita to the 311 line, with 3,062 in the first half of the year. At 0.75 calls per person, that ranked it as 92 on the neighborhood list of complaints per homeless.

Bel-Air had the highest ratio of calls to homeless people. In fact, homeless counters found the posh neighborhood had one homeless person (0.07 by LAHSA’s tally), but residents still made four calls to 311.

The report said there were just three people living on the street in Larchmont, an affluent area north of mid-Wilshire. But during the first six months of the year residents there made 147 calls to the Los Angeles’ 311 line to complain about homeless encampments. “That puts Larchmont’s ratio of complaints about homeless vs. actual people experiencing homelessness… at among the highest in the city,” the USC researchers said.

Other neighborhoods with the most complaints per homeless person are Beverly Crest in the Santa Monica Mountains, Toluca Lake, and Chatsworth Reservoir.  Venice, a center of homelessness, has 1,219 homeless and its residents made 1,558 calls to 311.

Koreatown, with a homeless population of 567, made 3,078 calls to the city complaining about homeless encampments during the first half of the year, more than any other neighborhood. Feelings about the homeless are high there.  Last year, hundreds in Koreatown met in a protest against a proposed homeless shelter.

The neighborhood with the lowest ratio? Surprisingly, it was the upscale Pacific Palisades. Unlike other wealthy enclaves, residents in the Palisades made only four calls to the city. Other neighborhoods with the fewest complaints per homeless persons are Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley, University Park around USC, Elysian Park and Westmont, in southeast Los Angeles.

These numbers don’t seem to be a factor in shaping city policy toward the homeless.  The city’s major effort to get homeless off the street is building temporary housing–“bridge housing”–to shelter people until permanent low income housing is built, which has proved to be a slow, bureaucratic process.  Mayor Eric Garcetti said the goal of bridge housing “is to give the homeless in every neighborhood a refuge in the community they already know and love until they can be connected to a permanent home.”

Unfortunately for the mayor, some of these communities don’t love the homeless.  Still, the mayor’s office said nine bridge housing projects have been completed, mostly in poorer areas that don’t call 311 to complain about the homeless.

The high complaint areas have resisted housing for the homeless, whether it is of the bridge variety or permanent.   In a calm, data-filled way, the USC Annenberg team has pinpointed this abdication of the city’s richest, most politically influential neighborhoods from helping solve a problem that engulfs us all.

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