How many homeless people are roaming around Los Angeles County?
No one has counted, and there are no generally accepted estimates.
"The wandering poor cannot be tagged like geese and their patterns of migration tracked," the National Governors Assn. concluded last year.
It is known that 2,000 are housed in free private shelters every night and that another 2,500 a night are placed by county welfare in low-grade hotels and motels scattered from Long Beach to Lancaster.
But there are many others staying in parked cars, camping along beaches or in suburban alleys or sitting in all-night theaters. Some pay by the night for cheap hotel rooms. A few hundred--maybe more--find places downtown to flop outdoors, either on Skid Row or in the safer sections. Homeless have also been spotted sleeping on the grounds of Hollywood High School and in the corridors of County-USC Medical Center.
The most commonly used estimate for Los Angeles County, 31,300 to 33,800, was derived by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a national estimate of the homeless population last winter.
Many with experience helping the homeless say that figure is too low.
Some other longtime Skid Row workers say it is probably close enough. And others, like Martha Brown Hicks, president of the Skid Row Development Corp., think it may be too high. "I've always thought there were less than that," Hicks said.
The HUD study used four methods to come up with a range of four national estimates.
The first method involved getting shelter operators and other people in 60 large metropolitan areas to estimate the number of homeless. The second method depended on opinions from shelter managers. Published reports were used as the basis of the third estimate. And the fourth method employed a census of shelters combined with a guess at the number of homeless on the streets.
The resulting national estimates ranged from 192,000 to 586,000. HUD concluded that the "most reliable range" was an average of 250,000 to 350,000 homeless individuals a night in December, 1983, or January, 1984. HUD estimated that the nightly demand for shelter beds exceeded the supply by at least 140,000.
Released last May, the report was immediately denounced by people who had been arguing for years that homelessness is a severe problem. Most of them had been repeating an estimate of 2.2 million or 1% of the U.S. population--a figure first used by homeless activist Mitch Snyder before a congressional subcommittee in 1980.
The HUD estimate "is intellectually shoddy, methodologically lacking and morally incredibly callous," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) at a May 24 congressional hearing on the report. "This report is part and parcel of Administration policy to try to ignore the homeless."
The HUD estimates caused special chagrin here by singling out Los Angeles as having slightly more homeless than New York and far more than any other metropolitan area. The homeless problem was generally worse in Western cities than in the East, the report said.
Because of the HUD report, and because of the vast size of Skid Row here, Los Angeles has been referred to since as the homeless capital of the nation in congressional testimony and in literature circulated by anti-poverty groups.
HUD officials who conducted the survey said it represented their best good-faith estimate of the problem, although Kathy Peroff, a senior HUD staff member who oversaw the survey, said at the time that there was "less hard data" from Los Angeles than from other cities.
Joseph F. Delfico, associate director of the General Accounting Office, said diplomatically at a congressional hearing last October that the true national figure is probably somewhere between the HUD estimate and Snyder's 2.2 million.
Although some dismissed the HUD figures as guesswork, others seized on them as confirmation that the homeless are a sizable group.
"The count may be conservative in the eyes of many observers, but the fact remains that the HUD figures add up to a serious national problem," the U.S. Conference of Mayors said in a report last June.
Local estimates vary wildly. Los Angeles police officers did a visual count of all those it could find sleeping outside of shelters and hotels on a given night last month and came up with a high of about 700, most of them downtown.
But an estimate done for the Los Angeles County homeless task force by an aide in the Department of Public Social Services concluded that there were 25,000 homeless people in the county, almost half in the downtown area.