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A couple experiencing homelessness waits for outreach workers at an encampment in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles on July 2, 2021.
A couple experiencing homelessness waits for outreach workers at an encampment in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles on July 2, 2021. (Jill Connelly/Bloomberg)

Los Angeles County, already at the epicenter of America's homeless crisis, could see its unhoused population nearly double after pandemic-related eviction moratoriums end, according to local Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the county could rise to more than 150,000 in the next few years from about 80,000 now, Villanueva told Bloomberg News in an interview. The most recent official homeless census in January 2020, before the economically-devastating pandemic, counted about 66,000 in the greater L.A. area.

Some of that growth could come from the 360,000 county residents who are at risk of eviction, he said. But the sheriff added that a main driver will be people relocating from other states, who typically start living on the streets of touristy areas like Hollywood and Venice Beach.

"We are destined to be overrun by the homeless in the next three to four years based on when these moratoriums start expiring," Villanueva said. "It's headed to a bad place."

Officials on a local and national level are wrestling with when to end the moratoriums, which were put in place at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak to prevent people who'd lost their jobs from also losing their homes. In Los Angeles County, the temporary moratorium that went in place in March of last year is due to expire at the end of September.

Villanueva made headlines earlier this year for operating outside his jurisdiction to clear out encampments in the L.A. community of Venice Beach — an approach that critics say simply moves the problem from one location to another without recognizing the root causes of the state's housing affordability crisis.

The sheriff, who faces a tough race for re-election next year, said he is continuing his cleanup efforts in other parts of Los Angeles. Villanueva blamed the severity of the homelessness problem on aid groups that directly bring food and resources to those living on the streets and elected officials who have failed to fulfill promises to build more housing options.

"There is no such thing as permanent housing, it's a fallacy," he said. "All you're telling everyone else is 'Hey come on over, it's great over here."'

Another "existential threat" facing the county is a major uptick in violent crime, said Villanueva. The sheriff's department reported that the number of murders surged by 60% to 187 between January and Aug. 24, compared with the year-earlier period. That puts the county on track to overtake last year's total of 201 homicides, which was the highest since 2016. Murders will probably end the year up by 60%, Villanueva said.

He cited worsening joblessness and economic prospects stemming from the pandemic and a cut to his office's budget as some of the key reasons for rising crime rates. The sheriff also referenced local and state measures that have reduced punishments for some crimes or released criminals early from prisons.

Violent crime has increased in many big cities across the country, including New York where former police captain Eric Adams has put public safety as a top priority in his pitch as the Democratic nominee for the New York mayoral vote in November. Likewise in Los Angeles, fighting crime, along with homelessness, will be key issues for voters when they go to the polls for scheduled elections next year for a mayor. The current mayor Eric Garcetti is awaiting a Senate confirmation hearing as the nominee for U.S. Ambassador to India.

"I think Eric Adams winning the Democratic primary is a shot across the bow," said the sheriff, who described himself as a lifelong Democrat. "This woke crowd that's taken over the left wing of the Democratic party, they're so out of touch that it's frightening."

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