When Long Beach city leaders declared a homelessness emergency in January 2023, they were blunt about how dire a situation the city was facing.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a homeless crisis in our city, we had a housing crisis in our region, but the pandemic has exacerbated that crisis,” newly-minted Mayor Rex Richardson said at the time.

“And when you add on top of that skyrocketing housing costs, when you add on top of that inflation, when you add on top of that a mental health crisis that’s really manifested in our streets, we find ourselves in a state of emergency.”

A year later, the council is expected to end the state of emergency, likely before the end of the month. But – after spending more than $13 million, hiring more staff and launching a raft of programs – Long Beach only appears to have met some of the urgent goals it laid out as benchmarks for success.

Since the emergency was declared, Long Beach has added more shelters and moved people more quickly into housing, according to city data, but more people than ever are dying unsheltered on its streets, and it’s yet to be seen if the city has made progress on the most-watched metric: whether overall homelessness declined since last year when 3,447 people were without a permanent place to live.

The metrics

Officials won’t know whether the number of unhoused people has gone down until they have compiled data from the annual point-in-time homeless count; it took place Jan. 25, but the city typically doesn’t release the data for several months.

A few of the other benchmarks the city set for itself would be challenging to measure, such as an “increase in multijurisdictional efforts to reduce violence” involving unhoused people, and a decrease in the number of people becoming homeless.

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But some of the marks of progress city leaders identified in their original emergency declaration are easily quantifiable. From January 2023 until early last month, for instance:

  • 230 new affordable (low-income) housing units became available.
  • 85 new year-round emergency shelter beds opened, and the city offered 100 temporary beds, either in the winter shelter (which usually closes by late spring) or during cold and wet weather.
  • 725 people found permanent housing.
  • 114 people in Long Beach died without stable housing.

Do these numbers represent improvement? Several of them appear to. According to the city’s online homeless data dashboard, about 494 people moved into permanent housing in 2022, so 2023’s figure would be an increase of nearly 47%.

Based on city-provided data, the new housing for low-income families added over the last year looks like a spike compared with the 49 affordable units that were completed or became available in 2022, but it’s basically on par with the 241 units completed in 2021.

One metric clearly wasn’t a change for the better. More unhoused people died in Long Beach in 2023 than in 2022 – in fact, more than in any other year since at least 2017, according to data from the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s Office.

But the end of the emergency appears to be a foregone conclusion, with Mayor Rex Richardson commenting at a December council meeting that the city is “demonstrating momentum” and while no one expected the issue to be solved this quickly, “we’re in a much better position than we were just one year ago.”

The good

The Long Beach Post reached out to the mayor and all nine City Council members in late December to ask about ending the emergency declaration. All but two council members either did not respond or declined to be interviewed in early January.

The two that spoke said they believe there’s been improvement over the past year, though there’s still plenty more work to do.

“We’ve expanded our capacity to deal with the crisis,” District 8 Councilmember Al Austin said, noting the new emergency shelter beds as well as temporary housing paid for by state Project Homekey dollars.

The city raised the number of outreach workers contacting unhoused people from about four to 22, he said, and the recent decision to move homeless services administration out of the health department and into the city manager’s office shows how serious City Hall is about addressing the crisis.

A large homeless encampment just off the 710 Freeway coming into Downtown Long Beach, Thursday, April 22, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

In District 3 Councilmember Kristina Duggan’s view, the state of emergency made it easier for the city to be flexible and move faster with contracts for homeless housing and services, she said, and it helped get an array of city departments to collaborate in a way they weren’t before.

She also noted the city maxed out its federal housing vouchers, meaning every available voucher was matched to an eligible person or family, and many of them have found places to live.

Declaring an emergency helped “push the city forward to focus on this, and to make it public” so officials could hear feedback and explain what they’re doing, Duggan said.

Some people who work with unhoused residents agreed that getting a public discussion of homelessness going was a good thing.

“Homelessness is not new to Long Beach, but I think for the last year it’s been much more top of mind and it’s felt like much more of an urgent issue,” said Paige Pelonis, founder of CityHeaART, a nonprofit that provides food and clothing, housing help and other resources.

The bad

But there’s still plenty that could be improved logistically.

Duggan wants a better system to tell outreach and public safety workers how many emergency shelter beds are available in something closer to real time, and Austin said the city should try to reduce the delay between when funding and other resources are received and when there’s an actual plan to spend them.

Homeless service organizations echoed those concerns and added some of their own.

Pelonis said the city doesn’t always seem ready with next steps, like launching a hotline that’s then flooded with more calls than staff can handle.

Crucial details can be lacking, like when the city’s hub for homeless services — called the Multi-Service Center — gives someone a voucher to pay for a new state ID, but they’re likely on their own in getting to the DMV, said Pam Chotiswatdi, a homeless outreach volunteer who sits on the city’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee.

A line of people awaiting services stretches along the outside of the Multi-Service Center in West Long Beach Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Pelonis and April Parker, whose nonprofit foundation has city contracts to help with housing and other services, would like to see the city use its powers to spread information, bring in funding and organize, then hand things off to non-government organizations and community groups.

The city started donation drives for food and hygiene products, essentially putting them in competition with nonprofits that were already collecting those things, Pelonis said.

The community organizations are more nimble and can do things the city can’t, Parker said.

“They are a giant and the work that needs to be done in the city needs to be done with delicate, small hands that are close to” the people they’re trying to help, she said.

Overall, Chotiswatdi wants to see a more comprehensive planning effort and fewer band-aid fixes. “We always kind of focus on the acute care and not the long-term solutions.”

The ugly

People who have been unhoused say they’ve seen firsthand where the system breaks down and why some give up or refuse the help they’re offered.

Catrina Martinez, who was recently staying in a tent in front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Seventh Street, said her three-month-old black cat is all she has for support, but most programs and facilities won’t let her bring her pet.

“They’ve been having me on a waiting list (for housing) and never got back to me” for more than a year, she said.

Ronald Hassell, another St. Luke’s regular, said many landlords don’t want to accept vouchers and look down on people who have them. He’s been on the street since October, when he got evicted from his apartment because he let his niece, who is on probation, move in, he said.

And once they get to the streets, Hassell said, “people get discouraged because they’re waiting and waiting, and then they get moved around by the police.”

Under pressure from residents and businesses, the city sweeps encampments – and unhoused people and their advocates say often everything that’s removed gets tossed in the trash, including vital documents people need to apply for help getting off the street.

Sherman Stone, who recently got a temporary housing placement after losing his job and his car and ending up on the street, tried in September to tell Long Beach City Council members about the contrast between city photo ops and his experiences.

“I didn’t plan on speaking,” he said in a recent interview, “but when I saw the pictures and they did this hour-long video of the shelters looking like the Hilton, I was like no, I’ve got to say something.”

After staying at last year’s winter shelter at Community Hospital and Atlantic Farms Bridge Housing Community (known as ABC), Stone finally opted for a tent along the Los Angeles River.

One shelter had restrooms with no private toilet stalls; when he complained to shelter staff they asked if he’d ever been in prison and said he’d get used to it, Stone said.

There was often no hot water; he saw shelter staff carry off food, toilet paper and other supplies meant for the residents; and when he raised a concern about flies landing on the meals workers were portioning out for residents, Stone said he was told, “That’s good enough for you.”

Compounding the problem, the city’s caseworkers are usually overloaded and seem to make little progress for their clients, Stone said, adding, “I got all my help from the April Parker Foundation (and) St. Luke’s.”

What now?

Some of the service providers and people who need housing said there needs to be more accountability, not only for the city but for the organizations it hires to operate shelters and provide services.

Stone said the previous mayor came to one of the shelters after hearing complaints about the conditions, but shelter residents were kept away and couldn’t talk to him – and that’s the only person from City Hall he saw set foot in the place.

Pelonis said she’d like to see “more stringent oversight and regulation” of the nonprofits running city-funded shelters, and Chotiswatdi suggested that the city require a checklist of items such as 24-hour staffing and security and trauma programs.

The broader community also needs to banish the stereotype that homeless people are drug addicts who choose life on the street, Parker said.

Everyone in Long Beach can do something to help, she said, adding, “change does not come quickly, but it will come a lot faster if we lock arms with the city.”

Councilmembers Austin and Duggan expect homelessness to remain front and center for city leaders.

“I don’t think we’re done because we’re going to end the homeless emergency proclamation,” Austin said.

“Through this crisis, I think we have laid the groundwork to make significant improvements in 2024.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the last name of April Parker.