LA Counts Its Homeless, But Counting Everybody Is Virtually Impossible

Two tents in Hollywood erected beneath the 101 Freeway during a January rainstorm. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

It's time for Los Angeles' annual homeless count.

This week, thousands of volunteers, homeless service workers, formerly homeless people, and even some who are currently homeless will try to figure out just how many people live without a home in one of the world's richest cities.

The annual census is organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). It takes place the nights of January 22, 23, and 24.

Last year's count estimated that, on any given night, about 53,000 people sleep rough in L.A. county. That number was generated using data gathered by homeless count volunteers and professional demographers.

If you want to volunteer in Los Angeles County, you can register and find specific time and location details at TheyCountWillYou.org.

Here's how it works:

WHO IS BEING COUNTED?

Homeless counts tabulate how many people are "literally homeless" on the night of the census. It's called a "point-in-time" count, and the number of people counted is a proxy for local governments and homeless services workers to know how many people are homeless on any given night in a year.

"Literally homeless" means people who are sleeping in a homeless shelter, or some other makeshift living quarters (like a car, vacant building, sidewalk encampment) not designed for human habitation.

WHO ISN'T BEING COUNTED?

The definition "literally homeless" is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The department requires counties to count the number of unsheltered people in their jurisdiction every other year, though Los Angeles does it every year because the issue's local magnitude.

That definition does not cover people who are precariously housed, or could potentially fall into literal homelessness at a point very near in the future. So, people sleeping on a friend's couch or living in a motel aren't counted, even though their living situation is far from stable.

Experts disagree on exactly who is "homeless" in these counts. For example, while HUD uses "literally homeless," the U.S. Department of Education defines homelessness as children and families who "lack a fixed, regular, and nighttime residence."

This difference has meaningful side effects locally. Consider the difference between LAHSA's count of children under 18 who were homeless last year and Los Angeles Unified School District's assessment. Where LAHSA estimates there are about 5,000 under-18s homeless on any given night in the 2018 homeless count, LAUSD figures there are more than 17,000 homeless students in its system.

Then there's also the fact that trying to count everyone who is 'literally homeless' on any given night is a herculean task, particularly in Los Angeles County.

WHAT MAKES LOS ANGELES COUNTY DIFFERENT?

L.A. County has the dubious honor of being home to the greatest number of unsheltered residents of any county in the United States. Though technically there are more homeless people in New York City's five boroughs, the vast majority of those people are sheltered in the city's expansive shelter system, mostly because freezing winter temperatures prompted the city to action.

Los Angeles' shelter system is much less developed, which means most of the people who are homeless here are unsheltered. Where East Coast cities can use the number of people staying in a homeless shelter on any given night as a proxy for how many people are homeless, the same cannot be done in Los Angeles (and other sunbelt and western cities, for that matter).

That's why LAHSA recruits thousands of volunteers to walk or drive almost every street in Los Angeles County, and look people sleeping outside. Volunteers search specific precincts for people and places where someone obviously lives.

HOW ARE PEOPLE COUNTED?

When volunteers participate, they're handed paper forms to tabulate people and living areas they see while making rounds in their assigned precinct. Counters are not supposed to engage with people on the street, and they are given detailed instructions on what to look for and how to 'count' the number of distinct structures in sprawling encampments.

That last part is important because of how the numbers are actually computed. Along with the bigger volunteer count, LAHSA works with professional demographers on a more detailed demographic survey. This is where population characteristics (age, race, gender, veteran status, etc.) are drawn from.

They also track how many people live in encampment structures and use that to generate a sort-of encampment population density metric. In the days and weeks after the volunteer count, demographers mix and match data from both the count and demographic survey to extrapolate bigger takeaways.

Alongside the volunteer counters, LAHSA also uses "special teams" made up of homeless outreach workers, emergency responders, and other homeless service professionals. These teams count in more inaccessible, potentially dangerous locations like the river and storm-drain system, the mountains, the freeways, and other isolated locations where people are known to live.

DOES EVERYBODY REALLY GET COUNTED?

The short answer is no, not everybody really gets counted. Even with thousands of volunteers, professionals, and people who are currently homeless working to count everyone, there are spots that fall through the cracks.

There are also some areas that are off-limits to volunteers for safety reasons, notably darkened alleys and vacant or abandoned buildings. Those areas have never been counted since the first census happened in 2004.

The big challenge comes down to a couple things; Los Angeles County is a gigantic geographic area, and trying to find every person living homeless is a virtually impossible task, even with a small army of counters; many people who are homeless go out of their way to hide and make sure they can't be easily found.

That is, even if volunteers are counting in a neighborhood, it's possible they may miss where someone is living. LAHSA takes special attention to recruit the counters who are or used to be homeless — because they know where to look better than someone who hasn't been homeless before — but ultimately there's a margin of error.

HOW CAN I HELP?

In L.A. County, the count happens the evenings of January 22, 23, and 24, from roughly from 8 p.m. until midnight. People who want to volunteer can sign up through the homeless count's official website, TheyCountWillYou.org. That site has specific time and location meetup information.

Counts happen in all parts of L.A. County, as well as Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. In L.A. County, Volunteers are encouraged to register beforehand so organizers have a good idea of how many people they'll have to work with. Registration will be open until the last minute, but volunteers who show up to a meeting location at the right time will not be turned away.

The more people who volunteer, the more accurate the numbers will be, and the better information homeless service workers will have to evaluate how their efforts are working, and where more attention is needed.