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Los Angeles seeks to skip upcoming homeless count over pandemic concerns

A volunteer with a clipboard approaches a homeless encampment
Volunteer Derrick Chambers approaches an encampment in Lancaster during the 2016 homeless count.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County wants to cancel the annual homeless count that occurs over several days in January.

The Board of Supervisors, citing the pandemic, voted Tuesday to ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for an exemption.

Congress requires that local regions conduct these counts every two years in the odd year — meaning it’s supposed to be done in 2021. The data gleaned is used by the federal government to distribute funding to get homeless people off the streets.

In recent years, as homelessness has grown, Los Angeles has done the count nearly every year. Over three days, thousands of volunteers fan out to count the number of tents, RVs and cars housing people throughout the region.

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This huge undertaking costs millions of dollars and represents a moment where the collective conscience of the region focuses on one of its most vexing challenges. The data helps set priorities for how money is spent and can become a political football.

Keeping track of the number of people who are homeless in Los Angeles is an exercise in uncertainty. Not only do the numbers change from year to year, presumably reflecting real shifts in the homeless population, but, once published, they can still change months or years later — based on changes in how the numbers are calculated.

Members of the Board of Supervisors said that it was very possible there wouldn’t be enough volunteers to pull off the count this year, especially since many are fully occupied fighting the pandemic.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control says that encampments shouldn’t be disrupted for fear of further spreading the virus. The supervisors expressed fear that the count would be “risky and challenging at best and a dangerous, superspreader event in the worst-case scenario.”

Citing the pandemic, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors is asking the federal government to skip the homeless count

The count is coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck earlier this year, the authority has helped organize the outreach and care of thousands of homeless people who have been living in rented hotel rooms.

In a written statement, LAHSA head Heidi Marston said there was no way to safely do the count of people on the street while assuring that it was accurate. She said that if the federal government grants the waiver, her agency would still count people living inside shelters and tally the number of number of beds and units available to homeless people through various government programs.

“Taking into account curfews and stay-at-home orders across the region, we determined that there is no safe way to gather the 8,000 volunteers necessary to conduct the 2021 Street Count,” she said.

Representatives for the Department of Housing and Urban Development didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.


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