Homelessness in Los Angeles County is much more widespread than previously thought, with big concentrations in South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, in addition to more obvious places like downtown's skid row.
That is one of the findings in a new report released Thursday at a summit on homelessness that drew more than 60 of the region's top community leaders to the Los Angeles Convention Center.
The panel, called Bring L.A. Home, included Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn; county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke; Cardinal Roger M. Mahony; the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, pastor of First AME Church; business leaders; service providers; law enforcement officers; and homeless people. Their goal is to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Los Angeles County would be the largest local jurisdiction to prepare such a plan, which is expected to be completed next June after a series of community meetings.
The plan would become the basis for federal funding of services for the homeless.
"As mayor, it's my job to improve the quality of life for the residents of Los Angeles, but it's hard to say there is any quality of life if you're homeless," Hahn said in welcoming the participants.
New data released Thursday by the Economic Roundtable, a public policy research group, found that the rate of homelessness in Los Angeles County is higher than the U.S. average.
Moreover, a disproportionate number of homeless people live on the streets, outside of emergency shelters.
The new findings support previous estimates that about 80,000 people are homeless in the county on any given night and about 254,000 are homeless over the course of a year.
The data are based on county records, census counts and national surveys of the homeless. Researchers said that, because of the difficulty of obtaining accurate counts, the numbers could vary widely.
And despite the notoriety of downtown Los Angeles' skid row, the largest proportion of homeless people -- about 33% -- are in South Los Angeles. People who experienced any homelessness in 2002 represent about 7% of the total population of South Los Angeles, according to the study.
In another finding, homeless people make up about 5% of the population in the Antelope Valley, and 34% of those living below the poverty level. Other large concentrations were identified in the San Gabriel Valley and the South Bay-Harbor area.
Weaker social service networks may account for the higher rates of homelessness in South Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, said Dan Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable.
Among other key findings:
* Family groups -- usually a mother and children -- make up two-thirds of the annual population of homeless people, while single adults make up one-third of the population.
* Drugs and alcohol are the most frequently reported causes of homelessness.
* African Americans are overrepresented in the county's homeless population, while other ethnic groups are underrepresented.
* Los Angeles County exports more homeless people to other areas of the state and nation than it imports, countering the historical perception that the city, with its moderate climate and social service network, is a national magnet for the homeless.
* The number of people who become homeless seems to spike at the beginning of the year, possibly reflecting end-of-year layoffs or cutoffs in public assistance. One encouraging finding is that 95% of those who experience homelessness during the year do so for short periods, usually less than a year.
"From our analyses, those who are chronically homeless are a small part of the total," Flaming said. "It's conceivable that 10,000 units of housing could wipe out the most visible signs of homelessness."
Panel members also expressed optimism, but conceded they faced immense challenges.
"The No. 1 issue in proposing a solution is NIMBYism," said Sheriff Lee Baca, referring to the "Not In My Backyard" mindset. "If we don't address that and resolve it we're not going to solve anything."
Antonio Manning, vice president of corporate relations for Washington Mutual Bank, said the business community must become more closely involved in the plight of homeless people, both for humanitarian reasons and as a practical matter.
"We can't thrive unless the areas where we are doing business are thriving," said Manning, who was named chairman of the panel. "It's my intention to make sure we bring the private sector along."
Tyrone Roy, a panel member who is homeless, said he intended to ride herd on the panel to come up with long-term solutions such as vocational training that would allow homeless people to end their dependence on government and charitable agencies.