LA's Annual Homeless Count (Or Undercount?) Is Underway

Once upon a time on Hollywood Boulevard. (Matt Tinoco/LAist)

Starting Tuesday evening, thousands of volunteers will canvass every census tract in Los Angeles County in the coming days for the annual "Point-in-Time" homeless count. The exercise takes place over three nights and aims to determine how many people are experiencing homelessness on any given night.

If you want to volunteer, you can register and find time and location details at TheyCountWillYou.org. As of Tuesday afternoon, volunteers are still needed in several locations.

There are four Continuum of Care bodies in Los Angeles County: Pasadena, Long Beach, Glendale and the LA CoC, which covers the rest of the county. LA Continuum of Care volunteers don't actually engage with those they're supposed to be counting. Instead, they keep track on clipboards of any individuals they see, along with makeshift shelters, tents, and vehicles that are obviously somebody's full-time residence.

Other Southern California counties, including Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura, will hold similar counts, either at the same time as Los Angeles or next week. The census in Orange County is biennial and will not take place in 2020.

The count in L.A. is organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). Last year's estimate found that, on any given night, almost 59,000 people are experiencing some form of homelessness in L.A. County. That number was generated using data gathered by homeless count volunteers and professional demographers.

The census is required by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and is used to determine how much federal funding a jurisdiction receives for homeless services.

At the same time, the census is expected to be an undercount of the true homeless population, possibly by a significant margin.

On paper, the annual census attempts to count everyone who is "literally homeless" in a jurisdiction. "Literally homeless" is a technical definition set by the federal government that counts people who are sleeping in a homeless shelter, who are unsheltered or who are sleeping in a structure not created for or otherwise unfit for human habitation, like a tent or car.

But producing an accurate number is virtually impossible. In Los Angeles County, locations like vacant buildings and darkened alleys are off limits to volunteers and other participants because of safety concerns. Nor does the census attempt to account for homeless people who are especially well hidden, like people living in storage units, sheds on private property or other outbuildings.

(Previous versions of the count have attempted to account for those more hidden people, like in 2005, when the count estimated there were more than 88,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles County.)

HUD's "literally homeless" definition does not include people who are functionally homeless, like those living in a motel or sleeping on a friend's couch.

Local school districts, however, do count those who are functionally homeless with a more expansive definition of homelessness set by the U.S. Department of Education. Under the education department's definition, L.A. County was home to slightly more than 70,000 homeless K-12 students during the 2017-2018 school year, according to the L.A. County Office of Education.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that there are multiple Continuum of Care bodies in Los Angeles County.