LOS ANGELES — As a rising cost of living has driven up homelessness along the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego, the 2018 national homelessness report released this week appeared to deliver a dose of good news.
The report, in part, showed fewer people living on the streets in two major Southern California cities compared to a year ago. Considering that counts of people experiencing homelessness are inexact, however, experts told USA TODAY that it'll take time to determine whether the numbers are a sign of true progress or an anomaly.
Circumstances ranging from bad weather to homeless people moving to different locations for sleep on one night each year can cause discrepancies in annual counts, said Gary Painter, director of the University of Southern California's Homeless Policy Research Institute.
"When you see small variations in the point-in-time estimates, you shouldn't make too much of that," Painter said.
Instead of celebrating the reported 3 percent decrease in Los Angeles County, where 49,955 experienced homelessness this year, according to the report, Painter said estimates over a five-year time frame are needed to determine whether recent policies to reduce homelessness are working. Only New York surpasses Los Angeles' homeless population, according to the report.
To the south in San Diego County, the homeless count has fluctuated by 3 to 5 percent in the past five years, said Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The task force organizes the county's annual homeless count, for which 1,600 volunteers, many to help cover the area's 4,300 square miles on a single night. The collected data is reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Compared to last year, the homeless population in San Diego decreased by 600 people to 8,576, according to the report.
A hepatitis A outbreak that killed 20 people in 2017 likely affected the count, Kohler said. For one, it dispersed homeless people from usually concentrated areas in the downtown area, making it harder for volunteers to find and count them throughout the county.
But the county also established tent shelters, which Kohler said may have decreased the homeless population as staff connected them to services. Next year's data may help determine whether it helped a city that has the fourth-highest homeless population in the country.
If the estimates show a decreasing trend in unsheltered homeless people, Kohler said the task force hopes to link it to a specific cause.
Rising rents, job loss and getting priced out of rentals are major drivers of homelessness in Los Angeles and San Diego, according to Kohler and Painter. These economic factors have also led to more people becoming homeless in Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
This year, the Seattle and King County area counted 12,112 homeless individuals, a number that fell between Los Angeles and San Diego in the annual report. A lack of affordable housing and rapidly rising rents have coupled to serve as culprits, said Kira Zylstra, acting director of All Home King County.
"Growth leads to a lot of pressure on the housing market, which adds to rising rents in a community. When more and more people are moving to the community for economic opportunity and jobs, there are a lot of people looking for housing, but also not a lot of housing to go around," Zylstra said.
The story is much the same in Portland, said Tony Bernal, who directs public policy and funding at Transition Projects. He said people compete for a scarce number of units, not just affordable housing, as new housing is built.
Low or insufficient income also leads to homelessness in Portland, Bernal said. People with Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability, which is $734 per month in Portland, often cannot afford housing as federal subsidies have been repeatedly cut, Bernal said.
The latest homeless count in Portland was 4,177, according to the point-in-time report in February 2017.