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 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (The Homeless Services Authority will get about $80 million this year from HUD.) The next survey is scheduled for 2015, but the agency had a chance to update its count this year. The federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which is under pressure to eliminate veteran homelessness in the next two years, offered the agency $772,000 to do a 2014 survey; last year's count cost the agency $800,000. But the agency declined the offer.
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 New York City (which has the largest homeless population in the country), San Francisco, Boston, Houston and Seattle.
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 VA would insist on being repaid, something the agency could not afford. And, Arnold says, the count would not have met that reliability level because the agency didn't have time to line up enough volunteers for an early 2014 count. Critics of the agency's decision say it could have solved those issues.
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.
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