On the surface, the 2023 homeless count rolling out across Los Angeles County Tuesday through Thursday is an attempt to quantify the number of unhoused people and learn their locations, needs and status so that services — including temporary and permanent housing — can be provided.
But like rising tension in a Hollywood movie, this year’s count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority comes with tense foreshadowing. Factors include the governor’s move to connect the homeless with mental health services in “CARE Courts”; two emergency declarations made for the first time, one by the city of Los Angeles, and the other by L.A. County; and a Los Angeles mayor who is not waiting for a honeymoon period to tackle the problem on streets in the City of Angels.
Some say that, since the first count in 2005 which found 88,345 homeless people countywide including Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, this year’s homeless count carries more weight. It comes after large disease spikes from COVID-19 have passed, though some cautions are still in place.
This time the count, again conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), unfolds amidst fevered anticipation from folks demanding action — in essence, wanting to know how this movie ends.
With more eyes watching, it packs a bigger political punch than any previous homeless count.
“Oh yeah,” said Jack Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “They are raising the prominence of this issue and the political stakes will probably increase,” he said on Jan. 17.
Politics: Who will pay the price?
During the Los Angeles mayoral campaign, unsuccessful candidate Rick Caruso ran TV ads showing rows of homeless encampments, and he promised to add 30,000 interim housing units in the first 300 days if elected. Mayor Karen Bass, who edged out Caruso for the job, has launched her “Inside Safe” initiative that aims to clear encampments by moving the homeless safely indoors at motels and hotels.
At a glance: L.A. County tallies its unhoused
In a sweeping annual statistical ritual that can be pivotal in shaping state and federal funding, as well as how local agencies craft their aid and outreach strategies, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority will stage its point-in-time audit of unhoused residents this week.
Amid emergency declarations, battles over funding, increasing scrutiny of LAHSA’s effectiveness and politicians facing unprecedented outrage from the public, this could be among the most important audits in the region’s history.
Each year, LAHSA assembles scores of volunteer teams to conduct the survey of people experiencing homelessness — in shelters, on the streets or in vehicles — in most of the county’s cities and unincorporated areas.
Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale, meanwhile, will compile their own independent surveys this week.
Among the most important reasons for conducting homeless counts is federal funding.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires L.A. County — as well as Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale — to conduct a survey of the homeless population to receive HUD Continuum of Care Program Competition funding.
Here are the homeless survey dates this week:
LAHSA | Jan. 24-26:
Tuesday: San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Valley volunteers.
Wednesday: Eastside and west L.A. area volunteers.
Thursday: South L.A., metro L.A., and Antelope Valley volunteers.
Glendale | Jan. 26
Long Beach | Jan. 26
Pasadena | Jan. 24-Jan. 25:
Tuesday: 8-10 p.m.
Wednesday: 6-8 a.m.
Southern California News Group’s coverage this week:
Today: The homeless count impacts complex issues that place it under an even more intense spotlight this year. They include the governor’s move to connect those who lack permanent shelter with mental health services in “CARE Courts”; emergency declarations by the city of Los Angeles and L.A. County and a new, popular Los Angeles mayor who is not waiting for a honeymoon period to tackle the crisis.
She agrees with President Joe Biden’s goal of reducing homelessness in the U.S. by 25% in two years. She has begun moving homeless people off the streets, starting with Venice and Hollywood.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency on homelessness and vowed to work hand-in-hand with the city of L.A. All of these efforts, from the White House to Sacramento to L.A. County and L.A. city underscore the importance of this year’s count like never before, Pitney says.
If Bass fails, she could face a Democrat in a mayoral primary in 2026, he said. This holds true for the county supervisors and any other politician who may not move the needle on homelessness after making promises. “When they seek reelection their opponents will use their current statements as a baseline and say: ‘This officeholder talked about fighting homelessness in 2023,’” Pitney said. “It has the potential to raise a political problem.”
The Count: Pressure to improve
Volunteers will begin counting on Tuesday, Jan. 24 in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, while east and west Los Angeles will be counted on Wednesday, Jan. 25, followed by South L.A., central L.A. and the Antelope Valley which will be counted on Thursday, Jan. 26.
The count is run by LAHSA and is done at night. The timing and the dates are set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Emily Vaughn Henry, deputy chief information officer for LAHSA.
HUD stipulates the count should be conducted in the last days of January each year. And HUD says counting at night is best because that’s when more homeless are on the streets looking for shelter. “That’s when you will likely find more people unhoused,” said Henry on Wednesday, Jan. 18
The purpose of a count is to get federal, state and local dollars to build shelters and housing, and to provide substance abuse prevention and mental health services to more of the unhoused population. It also helps government adjust resources to address the needs.
“It helps substantiate the number of people who are in need of substance abuse treatment and mental health services and interim, as well as permanent, housing,” said County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose First District includes Skid Row, the site of the region’s highest concentration of homeless adults.
Last year’s count also helps the county identify demographics. For example, the number of homeless who are Latino has been increasing, Solis said.
Yet things did not always go as planned and statistics lag. The 2021 count was canceled due to rising COVID-19 cases. And last year’s count was postponed until February. Results were released late — in September, which found that 69,144 people were homeless in L.A. County, a 4.1% rise from 2020, and 41,980 people were homeless in the city of L.A., up 1.7% from 2020.
Some interpreted the latest numbers as a flattening of the curve due to LAHSA and its partners who placed 84,000 people into permanent housing between 2017 and 2022. But others said the restrictions on volunteers who could not approach the unhoused during the count, coupled with problems from an app used to record data, caused an undercount.
This year, LAHSA is using a new app, and will provide pen-and-paper backup in case there are snafus, and is working with new demographers to improve results.
“Last year, a lot of people had questions if the numbers were reliable,” said recently elected Third District L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath on Wednesday. “This year, LAHSA has taken that to heart. Everyone involved will see an improved system to make sure our count has a regional aspect.”
However, the lack of volunteers is a looming problem. LAHSA in late fall last year set a goal of using 8,000 volunteers to perform the count. But one week out from the count, they had signed up just 3,307 volunteers and had lowered their goal to 5,000 volunteers.
“That would be enough, if we get to 5,000 I will be happy. If we get to 6,000 I’ll be happier,” said LAHSA’s Henry.
Undercounting is a concern
Jason, one of four adult men living in an encampment near the 210 Freeway in the San Gabriel Valley, said he’s never been approached by a counting team and doesn’t think he was counted in past years. But he praised LAHSA for helping him find a shelter in Bell last year.
“They helped me out because they got me in a shelter, they gave me food. But I haven’t seen them in a couple months,” said Jason, 41, who declined to give his last name.
Homeless people such as Jason who are contacted during or after a count, and even given a voucher for a hotel or a shelter bed, can end up back on the streets for various reasons.
A study by the RAND Corporation, produced by its team from the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, found that 41% of the homeless contacted in its study had been previously contacted by LAHSA — but were not recontacted to complete the intake process to get permanent housing.
“There’s a lot of engagement but not a lot of followup,” said Jason Ward, associate director of the RAND Center on Wednesday. “A high proportion said they were never contacted to move into permanent housing. Either people never came back, or people did and couldn’t find the individual.”
Solis characterized LAHSA as “bogged down with a lot of red tape.” She’s heard complaints from housing providers and those who provide other services that they face delayed compensation from LAHSA, which can turn away private businesses that want to help.
“We have to follow up,” she said, pointing the finger at LAHSA. “It is not just a one-off. There’s got to be more monitoring and tracking.”
The fast-approaching LAHSA point-in-time count is flawed in many ways, said Ward at RAND. First, it is only conducted one day each year, compared to RAND’s Los Angeles Longitudinal Enumeration and Demographic Survey (LA LEADS) project, which for a year sent highly trained professionals into Skid Row every two weeks, and into Hollywood and Venice every month.
Such intense and repetitive counting discovered 20% more homeless in those three areas — Skid Row, Hollywood and Venice — than the 2022 LAHSA count showed, Ward said. The RAND project took place from late fall 2021 through late fall 2022.
Weather, law enforcement sweeps and time of year affected the counts, he said. He said counting in January, when it is colder, may reduce the recorded number of unsheltered individuals because more stay in shelters than on the street.
While Ward said “both approaches have value,” his team will be releasing its updated count for those three areas within a week or two. “We see evidence of rapid changes, namely overwhelming growth (of homelessness),” he said.
Andy Bales, president and CEO of Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row, says he never calls it a count. “This is only an estimate. A one-time, best estimate, not a thorough count,” he said on Tuesday. “If everybody understands that going in, there will be much less disappointment.”
Solis said colder weather and recent rains may have pushed the homeless indoors, moving them toward couch-surfing, into shelters or tiny homes, or sleeping in cars or RVs — which makes them harder to count. She said the Board of Supervisors welcomes all data sources, not just the LAHSA count.
“We do have to consolidate and put data and coordination at the center of our efforts,” Solis said.
16-year volunteer Heather Filbey-McCabe inputs details about a person living inside a makeshift tent on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, as part of a citywide homeless count throughout Long Beach. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)
Who can get missed?
Karen Roberson, co-founder of Family Promise San Gabriel Valley, can spot a homeless family better than most LAHSA volunteer counters, she said. Her group takes them into rotating shelters provided by churches. The group also provides clothing and lockers at its facility in San Gabriel.
She estimates there are 3,000 homeless families in the San Gabriel Valley. Many are never recognized in the point-in-time count, she said.
“They are hidden,” Roberson said on Wednesday. “Sometimes they are couch-surfing. Some are in parks or they are in their cars. Some hide because they are afraid if they are counted they will have their kids taken away. They are undercounted.”
She said the main count focuses on single, unattached homeless people, saying, “The focus on families is much smaller.”
Homeless youth are another group flying under the radar, said Solis. Homeless community college students, reported to attend Pasadena City College, Rio Hondo College and Los Angeles Community College campuses, often sleep in the library or in their cars in the parking lot.
“They get up in the morning and go into the gym and take a shower,” she said. “They can remain invisible.”
But Pitney says more often, homeless individuals are seen — in encampments under freeway overpasses, in empty storefronts, along freeway off-ramps with signs, and on buses and trains. The plight of people living outdoors in rain, cold temperatures and baking heat makes solving the problem imperative.
“The thing about homelessness is, it is so visible,” Pitney said. “Will they be able to make any progress? Who knows?”
At a glance:
• The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count runs from Tuesday, Jan. 24 through Thursday, Jan. 26. It includes the unsheltered count, youth count and housing inventory count (those living in interim and permanent supportive housing).
• To volunteer, go to: https://www.theycountwillyou.org/ to learn more.
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