By Eun Jin Shin (Sungkyunkwan University)
Homelessness has been one of the most critical issues facing major US cities in recent decades. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report (2020), about 0.57 million people in the United States experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2019. Although some cities, like Chicago, have witnessed a general downward trend in homelessness in recent years, numbers have risen dramatically in Los Angeles—an area known for long-standing high homelessness rates.
One distinctive characteristic of homelessness in Los Angeles is its higher share of the homeless population which is unsheltered. Approximately 72% of the total homeless population in this area remains unsheltered, much higher than the national average of 35%. As a result, the Los Angeles area contains roughly a quarter of all unsheltered homeless people in the nation. The number of unsheltered homeless individuals in Los Angeles is also more than ten times that of New York City—the city with the highest homeless population in the US.
Local media has reported numerous resident complaints and a wide range of problems related to unsheltered homelessness. For example, Skid Row in Los Angeles, home to many unsheltered homeless people, has suffered from rodent infestation and other unsanitary conditions, threatening the health of homeless people and residents alike. However, despite the growing severity of unsheltered homelessness and the associated public attention, researchers have made surprisingly little effort to understand the distribution of unsheltered homeless people within cities. What are the characteristics of neighborhoods with high concentrations of unsheltered homeless people? Where in Los Angeles does growth or decline in this population occur? These questions have remained unexplored, even though the answers would provide essential information for addressing unsheltered homelessness.
My UAR paper fills this gap in the existing literature by exploring the distribution of unsheltered homelessness at the neighborhood level. I used the 2016–2020 Los Angeles Point-In-Time homeless count data, which were annually estimated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The data set primarily relies on a street count of unsheltered homeless people conducted over three nights every January during the study period. I began by exploring the cross-sectional relationships between neighborhood-level factors and the unsheltered homeless population density, defined as the number of unsheltered homeless individuals per square mile. Then, I investigated the neighborhood characteristics associated with changes in the unsheltered homeless population density between 2016 and 2020.
Findings reveal multiple neighborhood characteristics associated with the unsheltered homeless population density. In addition to echoing previous findings that the location patterns of supportive services, such as homeless shelters, are strongly correlated with unsheltered homelessness, I found that unsheltered homeless people tended to be concentrated in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status and a larger share of Black residents. Unsheltered homelessness was also highly concentrated in and around the city center, a widely documented pattern in the existing literature. These findings generally conform to our expectations.
However, factors explaining the changes in unsheltered homelessness over time are somewhat different from those found to be important in cross-sectional models. Access to supportive services and poverty rates were not significant predictors of changes in unsheltered homelessness. Instead, unsheltered homelessness tended to increase rapidly in neighborhoods with more bridges and a lower residential land share. Moreover, neighborhoods with a higher proportion of Hispanic residents experienced a relatively large increase in unsheltered homelessness over the study period. These results suggest the importance of analyzing geographical trends over time to understand the dynamic nature of homelessness.
My findings provide important takeaways for policymakers. For example, policymakers need to pay attention to the results that non-residential areas or areas near bridges tend to experience relatively large increases in unsheltered homelessness. These findings imply that homeless people potentially face exposure to health and safety hazards such as noise and unsanitary conditions. That is, as unsheltered homeless people increasingly occupy non-residential areas and areas under or inside bridges, they are more likely to face health risks and contract diseases. Therefore, interventions need to be considered to protect homeless people from these hazards and provide appropriate medical services to address their health problems.
Furthermore, residents and businesses tend to oppose the development of homeless shelters or other supportive facilities in their neighborhoods. This is partly because of a lack of rigorous investigation on the impact of such facilities on the surrounding areas, which fuels their fears that shelters and other supportive facilities will act as magnets for the homeless population. My study provides evidence indicating that access to supportive services is not significantly associated with an increase in unsheltered homelessness in subsequent years. This evidence could potentially reduce resistance to the siting of these services and, therefore, facilitate the development of homeless shelters and support facilities.
Although my study made an important first step toward understanding the finer-grained spatial patterns of unsheltered homelessness and its changes over time, there are several ways to improve my research. One of them is to determine whether the association documented in my study is causal. This requires a more systematic effort to consistently collect data (both homeless count and neighborhood characteristics) over a long period. I also recommend that future studies broaden the geographic scope and use comparable inter-city data sources to systematically assess how the neighborhood distribution of homelessness varies across cities.
Eun Jin Shin is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and the Graduate School of Governance at Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea. Her research focuses on the equity dimensions of urban and transportation planning. She received her PhD in urban planning and development from the University of Southern California in 2017.