Pandemic adds urgency to count of L.A. County’s homeless population
On a map of Los Angeles County, census tract 124300 is shaped like a trapezoid. It’s the part of North Hollywood where Emma Taylor and two others spent Tuesday night conducting a count of people living on the streets.
The trio was among the thousands of volunteers who took part in the first day of the homeless count in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys. The three-day event continues Wednesday evening in West Los Angeles, southeast Los Angeles and the South Bay areas.
Known as the “point-in-time” homeless count, the survey helps the county determine where to distribute resources to the unhoused and allocate state and federal funding.
Heidi Marston, the executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which coordinates the count, kicked off this year’s event during a video press conference.
“We’re really eager to get this count underway,” Marston said. “We all know the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought so many changes to our society and our homeless response system is no exception to that.”
Marston said that during the pandemic, the county provided shelters, quarantine sites and distributed thousands of meals every day to the homeless population. She said LAHSA also launched a mobile app that allowed the county to track and respond to coronavirus outbreaks. When vaccines became available, mobile clinics were sent to inoculate people who wanted it.
This year’s count was scheduled for Jan. 25-27, but it was delayed by the winter surge of coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant. The last count conducted in 2020 found that 66,436 people were experiencing homelessness in the county, a 13% increase from the previous year.
“The data from this year’s count will help us understand more about who our unhoused neighbors are, their needs and the interventions of the programs we need to continue to build to support that,” Marston said.
In attendance at the press conference were federal, state and local leaders including L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“We had federal partners who stepped up with real funds, allowing us to take advantage of everything from hotel to motel rooms, to getting state dollars to make sure we can buy abandoned buildings and others,” the mayor said. “To make sure that we put the real emergency sense on this issue that we need to have and treat this like the humanitarian crisis that it is.”
Garcetti said the city of Los Angeles had budgeted about $10 million in 2013 to address homelessness. Last year, he promised to spend nearly $1 billion. He said the number of people placed in shelters had increased and hopes the count would document those efforts.
“But this is really about the count and making sure no one is left behind,” Garcetti said. “These aren’t just statistics, these are stories, not numbers but narratives; they’re flesh and blood and often from our families, our own neighbors, people we had gone to school with, people who we worked with, people who are down on their luck or in the toughest and most traumatic places.”
State Assembly member Adrin Azarian (D-North Hollywood), praised volunteers who were devoting the next three days to help count the homeless population. He said the data are crucial to help those in need, many of whom have probably fallen through the cracks during the pandemic.
“This growing issue has come to the level of crisis over the course of the decade,” he said.
Tuesday night’s count began as temperatures dropped into the upper 40s. At the North Hollywood Recreation Center, coordinators watched as volunteers logged in information through a mobile app developed by Akido Labs, a health management firm.
It was the first time the count was done electronically. Site coordinators could see in real time not only the data that was being logged in by volunteers, but they could also track them as they canvass an area. This let coordinators know when teams were completing their counts.
By 10 p.m., the last of the two groups was returning to the recreation center. Strolling in were Taylor and Elisa Schwartz, both of whom are staff members of the assemblymember’s office. Standing between them was Abby Robertson, a resident of Valley Village.
The three women said they worked as a team. Taylor was the driver while Schwartz looked around for tents, makeshift dwellings and vehicles occupied by people. Robertson said she logged the information into the app.
“Abby and I have done the homeless count without the app,” Taylor said, adding that the app made things go smoother.
“It really seems to work well,” Schwartz said. “It has a feature where it marked the streets as we went along, which is a great feature.”
Nearby Andrew Silver, president of NoHo Home Alliance and co-site leader, was the last person to leave the center. He said more than 50 volunteers helped with the count.
Despite modernizing the count, it’s unknown what the data will show until they are fully analyzed. Silver said the number of people in the street could have grown because of the pandemic. But he also said there were more people in shelters. Near the center is a tiny village that provides 30 housing units, each one with two beds.
Because of the pandemic, only one bed can be occupied per unit.
The results of the latest count won’t be available until May or June.
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