Counting the homeless in Los Angeles County may not be as difficult as housing them all, but it is a daunting challenge nonetheless. In early 2013, an army of 5,000 volunteers, under the direction of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — a joint agency of the county and city — fanned out across 1,350 of the sprawling county's 1,800 census tracts for two nights to count the number of people sleeping on sidewalks, in tents and cardboard lean-tos, under bridges, in cars. Simultaneously, the agency counted the number of people sleeping in transitional and emergency shelters and rescue missions.
So far this complex process has been carried out every other year — the minimum required by the
This was a disappointing and frustrating turn of events. Knowing who the homeless are, where they are and how many are on the streets is essential for agencies working to get them into housing and therapeutic services. The more current that information is, the more accurately homeless advocates can assess whether their programs are working. Other metropolitan areas undertake annual counts, among them
So why would an agency tasked with getting tens of thousands of homeless people off the streets — the second-largest homeless population in the U.S. — turn down the opportunity to obtain better numbers? Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Michael Arnold says the federal money had strings attached: If the count didn't meet a specific measure of reliability, the
But now everyone should focus on putting an annual count in place — something Arnold says he wants to do. The agency's 2015 biennial count is already being planned. After that, it should waste no time in organizing a 2016 count. "We're reaching out right now to the VA for 2016," Arnold said. "We learned." That's good. Counting the homeless should not be harder than helping them.