When counting the numbers, numbers don’t always count

| September 2, 2020 | 0 Comments

TENTS housing the homeless, like this one in Hancock Park at the corner of Rossmore and Clinton, are increasingly visible in the neighborhood.    Photo by Billy Taylor

Homelessness is on the rise. People are living on the streets, in tents and in their cars more than ever before. We don’t need data and statistics to know the sad truth of what we see every day driving and walking the streets of Los Angeles.

Yet, a complex, data-based numbers game takes place every year to determine the size and scope of the problem and to help create policies and erect shelters to help fix it.

Does it help?

Yes, and no, say city officials.

“You can get bogged down in these statistics. We know homelessness is getting worse. We see it. We know it when we hear about people losing their houses… ” said Mark Pampanin, spokesman for Councilmember David Ryu of Council District Four (CD4).

Ryu has been an advocate against relying too heavily on the homeless count, which showed a grave discrepancy in his district in 2019. (More on that later.)

While Ryu’s critics say enough is not being done, the councilmember argues a steady, full-speed-ahead approach has taken place since he took office four years ago.

1,072 homeless

Unfortunately, the number of homeless — 1,072 adults and youth in the 275,000-population CD4 in 2020 — continues to grow at an even greater pace.

So what’s been done in the past few years in CD4?

A total of 605 new beds are now available, approved or in development (272 are actually available, and the rest are set to open within one to two years), according to Pampanin.

Another 105 beds have gone online in emergency shelters and trailers just since the pandemic hit.

“If you add that to our 272 [temporary] Bridge Housing units open, there are a total of 377 beds / units in CD4 currently housing Angelenos experiencing homelessness,” Pampanin said. While any number is too high, CD4 has a low number of homeless individuals relative to other districts, he added.

Since COVID-19

Since the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, steps have been taken to shelter people fast across the county.

“In response to the COVID-19 crisis, in partnership with the City and County, we sheltered over 6,000 people in just a few months,” said Sarah Dusseault, commission chair for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).

In March, the County and City declared a public health emergency related to COVID-19 and created Project Roomkey Interim Housing Program, a hotel/motel program to provide temporary housing for asymptomatic people among high-risk homeless individuals, such as those 65 and older. Shelters were also opened in parks and in trailers.
2020 count for CD4

LAHSA oversees the annual homeless count, where each January, thousands of volunteers canvas the streets to collect a “point-in-time” count. The results were recently released — after some delay because of COVID-19.

The 2020 count found a 14.7 percent increase of homelessness in CD4 from the year before. Some of the 1,072 homeless individuals in CD4 are living in shelters; most — 952 people — are not.

In adjacent Council District 10, there was a 20 percent increase, totaling 1,185 adults and 79 youth living on the streets and another 666 persons living in shelters.

Comparatively, the City of Los Angeles had a 16.1 percent rise that reflects 41,290 individuals living on the street, in tents or shelters. In all of Los Angeles County, there were 66,436 homeless men, women and children — a 12.7 percent rise from 2019’s “point-in-time” count.

The 2020 results are misleading, because the count was taken before the effects of COVID-19 and the economy and job numbers tanked.

“No matter how we calculate it, the numbers are up,” said Ahmad Chapman, LAHSA communications director.

2019 revised

Also released were revised numbers for 2019, which after adjustments changed the count altogether.

In CD4, the original 2019 report stated a skyrocketing 52.8 percent increase in homelessness.

After the revision, the 2019 count showed a 23.7 percent increase, to a total of 935 homeless individuals — a rise, to be sure, but much less than the 52.8 percent previously reported.

“Councilmember Ryu has been saying for years… it shouldn’t matter if [homeless count numbers] went up 53 percent or two percent… homelessness exists everywhere, and we need a citywide and countywide overall approach… And, we need to solve homelessness in Los Angeles,” said Pampanin.

The revised findings for 2019 were based on adjustments by LAHSA’s statistical partner, the University of Southern California. (The 2019 method relied on a less precise estimate of the number of people in a vehicle, tent or other structure, explained LAHSA’s Chapman.)

Commission chair Dusseault added: “The issue is what multiplier USC used last year to determine the number of people who live in an RV or tent. Most RVs or tents are not one-person, and the question is what number to use as a multiplier and what information to use to arrive at a multiplier. Is it 1.3 people, 1.5? Two people?”

Regarding this, Larchmont Village resident Allison Schallert, the co-founder of the supportive housing advocacy group Stories from the Frontline, said of the raw numbers: “Either way, CD4 is doing great work. Either the district experienced an eight percent decrease or the increase last year was far less that the year before. Also either way, this still is incredibly frustrating and not OK, and it points to the fact that percentage increase or decrease locally-derived from the count is way less meaningful than many believe.”

Schallert further told us: “The Homeless Services Authority was able to place 22,767 people into housing last year; it’s an area in which the agency has made steady headway. The number of housing placements has more than doubled since 2014. Each day, the city puts 132 people into housing, but because of high rents, unemployment, under-employment and a myriad of other reasons, 155 people each day fall into homelessness.”

High margin of error

Another problematic factor in the homeless count is a high margin of error — as much as 30 percent, translating to 279 people in 2020 in CD4. That means the 2020 number of 1,072 homeless in CD4 (Sherman Oaks to Los Feliz; Toluca Lake to Greater Wilshire) might actually be 793 people. Or it could be 1,351. Or anywhere in between.

Because of these factors, the homeless numbers should be given more as a range than a specific number, said Pampanin.

Visit lahsa.org.

To see the USC 2018 – 2020 Multipliers and Estimates Overview, visit:

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