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Almost 7,500 volunteers are signed up to help count L.A. County's homeless

As city and county officials gear up for what is promised as a $100-million program to reduce homelessness, thousands of volunteers will hit the streets to document the scale of the problem.

Nearly 7,500 volunteers have signed up to take part in the 2016 homeless count, said Naomi Goldman, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which organized the event.

The volunteers will gather at 150 deployment centers across the county over three nights beginning Tuesday night in the San Gabriel Valley and East Los Angeles.

The count will move to the San Fernando Valley, West Los Angeles and the South Bay on Wednesday night. Malibu, Pacific Palisades and the Antelope Valley will be counted Thursday morning. The count will conclude Thursday night in the central city and South Los Angeles.

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This year marks the first homeless count to be conducted in consecutive years. Since 2005, the joint city-county agency had organized the massive effort during only odd-numbered years.

Amid growing public concern over the spread of homeless encampments to neighborhoods far from skid row, last year's count set off alarms by recording a dramatic increase in homelessness. The count set the number at 44,000 homeless people, a 12% increase over the previous count.

More than 33,000 of those were classified as unsheltered, living on the streets in encampments, doorways and vehicles.

Under pressure to respond to what has been perceived as a growing crisis, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this month published a blueprint for spending $150 million on short-term responses to homelessness. On the same day, L.A. city officials released a study concluding that ending homelessness would require the expenditure of $1.85 billion over a decade, mostly for permanent housing.

The 2015 count also shined a harsh light on a subset of the homeless population: veterans.

Its estimate of about 4,400 in the county forced Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to back off a pledge he had made in July 2014 to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

Garcetti made the pledge during a high-profile appearance with First Lady Michelle Obama at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.

In January 2015, the mayor said he was more than halfway there, but the count conducted that month and released in May showed a 6% increase in the city's homeless veteran numbers.

Garcetti readjusted his goal to summer 2016.

The persistence of veteran homelessness was in part responsible for the Homeless Services Authority's first even-year count.

During the summer, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs put up money to supplement city and county funding for the $1.35-million enterprise.

Goldman, the Homeless Services Authority spokeswoman, said the 2016 volunteer response exceeded last year's, when 6,000 people scoured about 89% of the county's census tracts.

This year's count will cover nearly 95% of census tracts, Goldman said.

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The count — actually an estimate rather than a true count such as the U.S. census — begins at deployment centers where volunteers are dispatched in small groups to survey specific census tracts.

At last year's count, each group received several clipboards, each with a map of a census tract. They were instructed to drive some tracts and walk others. The volunteers made hash marks on the clipboard for each individual, occupied vehicle or encampment they spotted.

Their tallies, tabulated by Homeless Services Authority workers over the next few days, were extrapolated into estimates by statistical consultants. The program used results of a separate in-depth survey of homeless people to assign a specific number of individuals to each vehicle, shelter or encampment. The final estimates were released in May.

doug.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATdoug

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 26, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "L.A. County's homeless tally is set to begin - Almost 7,500 volunteers will help conduct this year's count, organizers say." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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