2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Sets New Precedents for Documenting the Homeless Population

Volunteers hit the streets to count homeless population in LA. Credit: Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.
Volunteers hit the streets to count homeless population in LA. Credit: Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.

Over three days in late January, more than 7,000 volunteers fanned out across Los Angeles County to count the homeless population as part of Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s now-annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.

Data collected from this count will not only help city and county officials prioritize and allocate resources to assist the homeless, it will also serve as an important tool in potentially acquiring new funding and support as organizations around the community work to serve the homeless population.

Volunteers from schools, churches, synagogues and local communities worked in teams to tally homeless people on the streets in a designated section of the neighborhood around their LAHSA-designated meeting site, collecting “Point-in-Time” (PiT), or snapshot, data about the number of homeless individuals living on the streets of L.A. on any given night.

The record-breaking number of volunteers this year, in addition to new strategies to canvas the community, allowed Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) to cover 95 percent of LA County’s census tracts, up significantly from 2015.

The methodology of the homeless count focuses on a tally of the homeless on the street, in encampments or tents, and living in RVs or cars. There is also a breakout program for counting homeless youth. In addition to tallying individuals, volunteers were given information to distribute about emergency shelters and resources available to the homeless in the face of El Niño.

The 2015 research review “Can We Compare Homelessness Across the Atlantic? A Comparative Study of Methods for Measuring Homelessness in North America and Europe,” written by Alison Smith and published by the European Journal of Homelessness, explores the differing methodologies for counting the homeless between North America, where PiT has become the standard method, and Europe. While PiT methodology is much less common in Europe and only utilized in a few countries, there is no predominant alternative method that is widely accepted as the standard.

Smith explains that “often referred to as a snapshot of homelessness, the PiT methodology is not perfect, but allows for an accurate estimation of mostly chronic homelessness and permits the public and policy-makers to monitor trends among this population over time.” As L.A.’s city and county governments formalize plans around what is being generally recognized as a homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, data from this year’s count will be crucial to guiding the conversation.

Smith’s report explains how central PiT data has become in the United States for receiving Federal Continuum of Care (COC) homelessness funding. While once listed as one possible way of enumerating the homeless in a city, as of 2014 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) required communities to use this methodology in collecting data for federal funding. It also dictated that “CoCs must conduct their counts at least every two years during the last week in January,” according to Smith’s report. A limit of this tactic is that it more readily leaves those who are not visible or hidden out of site uncounted.  Therefore, “PiT Counts are always recognized as an under-estimation of the homeless population.”

This year, LAHSA introduced multiple new elements to the process, some of which address weaknesses inherent in the PiT methodology, in efforts to produce more accurate and usable data than in previous counts.

The first of these is that the count actually happened this year. Until this year, the city’s Homeless Count has taken place once every two years. The results of the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count revealed a 12 percent increase in homeless from 2013. The rise, in addition to the mandate to produce consistent data to compete for federal dollars, paved the way to make the count an annual event.

Community leaders’ initial hesitation to execute such a massive effort on a yearly basis has dissipated in seeing how quickly their communities have stepped up to participate, said Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Property Owners’ Alliance, and a LAHSA commissioner.

“In Hollywood, we filled up the volunteer roster right after Christmas…because with the community awareness of homelessness in its crisis state, as the media has described it and our city council, then there are good-hearted people who say, what can I do to help?” Morrison said.

LAHSA also restructured the leadership of the count this year, for the first time hiring regional directors to coordinate and manage volunteer efforts in each of L.A.’s Service Planning Areas (SPAs). The LA County Public Health Department uses the breakdown of the eight SPAs to develop clinical and public health services specific to the needs of each one. Now, they are also being used as a framework to organize outreach to the homeless population.

The SPA regional coordinators spearheaded engagement with their local communities in a way that LAHSA was previously unable to do when the entire operation was concentrated at their hub. One benefit of decentralizing the efforts was taking advantage of local knowledge and establishing “hot spots” that might be unsafe for volunteers to go into and count, which in the past would mean people living in those places went uncounted.

“This year, they identified in advance hotspots by asking people who know the neighborhood. They asked me, in Hollywood, what would be hotspots in Hollywood that might require somebody different to do the counting?” Morrison said. “So they anticipated where a lot of these hot spots were going to be in order to plan to make sure that they got counted, because the last thing you’d want to happen is people not count those areas because they were nervous about going through,” or that volunteers risk their own safety by going through areas such as “a freeway embankment, or in a particularly dark alley.”

This year’s new structure allowed the regional coordinators to work with LAPD and professional staff to assess those hotspots on the same night of the count, maintaining the integrity of the PiT snapshot and ensuring that individuals in those hotspots were still counted. Despite the limitations of the Point-in-Time methodology, as Smith illustrates, LAHSA’s collaboration with LAPD aimed to more accurately count the number of homeless people on the street.

The next phase of the count will be a demography survey, which Morrison explains will survey a select group of individuals on factors such as age, race, ethnicity and family status. This demographic sample will be applied to the rest of the data collection based on a predetermined algorithm. If the PiT count takes a numerical snapshot of Los Angeles’ homeless population, the demographic sample aims to take a closer look at the faces and experiences behind those numbers.

Then begins the months-long task of entering and assessing the data. Information on both the PiT count as well as the demography survey will be released in tandem. Typically, the results of the county-wide efforts are available in the spring.

Screenshot 2016-02-19 11.02.25Elizabeth Green is a candidate for a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management degree at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course offered at Price.

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