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Housing and Homelessness

LA’s Annual Homeless Count Underway, As Audit Looms In The Background

Using a flashlight, two volunteers check their tally. Behind them, several tents line a city street, with the downtown L.A. skyline in the background.
Volunteers at the 2015 homeless count in Los Angeles.
(David McNew
/
Getty Images)
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This week thousands of Angelenos will face a daunting task: counting their unhoused neighbors.

The L.A. region’s annual homeless count, which will take place Tuesday through Thursday, comes on the heels of heightened concerns about its accuracy.

Last year, some volunteers reported struggling with the smartphone app used to count people experiencing homelessness. Then, once the 2022 count results were released, some L.A. councilmembers were taken aback by huge spikes in certain districts, coupled with hard-to-believe drops in others.

Under a settlement reached last year in a federal court case, the city must provide shelter for 60% of the unhoused people in each council district. Some councilmembers felt the 2022 count failed to reflect progress they’d made. They also wondered if decreases in some districts stemmed from shelters being opened in others.

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In response, the L.A. City Council introduced a motion last September, calling for city staff to explore conducting a “multi-year audit” of previous homeless counts. The council also voted to consider a third party to carry out future surveys, instead of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, known as LAHSA.

The motion, introduced by former Council President Nury Martínez, was seconded by council members Kevin de León and Paul Krekorian. Not long after this motion, racist and derogatory recordings involving Martínez and de Léon were leaked, and the council was in turmoil. Then came winter recess.

Edwin Gipson, the assistant city administrative officer who oversees homelessness, told LAist that the multi-year audit is still pending. City staff will also conduct a review of the 2023 homeless count, comparing it to last year’s, he added.

What’s Changing This Year?

In a statement, LAHSA said it’s “taking lessons learned from last year.”

To help restore the public’s trust in the count, the agency has hired a demographer and two data scientists to optimize its data analysis. During the count, LAHSA staff will be present at every volunteer deployment site, making backup paper maps and tally sheets available for all volunteers. If any areas have missing data, the agency will send out make-up count teams.

LAHSA has also replaced the counting app used in 2022 with one built by Esri, a company that’s developed apps for homeless counts across the U.S., including San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

“If you lose connectivity — no matter where you are — you can still keep the survey going,” said Este Geraghty, Chief Medical Officer at Esri. “Then, whenever the person holding the app comes near a Wi-Fi hotspot or their own internet connection, all of that data will automatically load onto the database for LAHSA and populate the dashboard.”

Why Accuracy Matters

Daniel Flaming, president of the nonprofit Economic Roundtable, has analyzed L.A.’s homeless counts for years, including in 2022. He and his research team also identified discrepancies.

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“It’s important to have it be more accurate, so members of the public can have a sense of: ‘Is this problem getting better or worse? And how much better, or how much worse?’ And I don't think we got that in 2022,” he said.

Understanding the scope and nature of homelessness is especially critical for unhoused Angelenos, he added. “The data helps guide the distribution of funding and the delivery of services to our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Concerns About Coordination

Hugo Soto-Martínez represents District 13 and joined the council last month alongside four other new members. He said accurate numbers are needed to help drive policies “to address the many needs that people voted us in for.”

Better collaboration is also a must, he said.

“We have over 30 service providers that go out every single day and do outreach within the bounds of our district,” he said. “However, there's no coordination. It's like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor.”

Map shows boundaries of District 13 which includes all or some of the following communities of Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Echo Park, Elysian Valley, Glassell Park, Historic Filipinotown, Hollywood, Larchmont Village, Little Armenia, Melrose Hill, Rampart Village, Ridgewood-Wilton, Silver Lake, Spaulding Square, St. Andrews Square, Sunset Square, Thai Town, Verdugo Village, Virgil Village, Western-Wilton, Westlake, Wilshire Center and Windsor Square.
District 13
(Courtesy City of L.A.)

District 13 includes neighborhoods like East Hollywood, Echo Park, Hollywood, Sunset Square and Westlake.

In addition to the 2023 homeless count, Soto-Martínez and other councilmembers are grappling with another urgent issue: eviction safeguards in the city of L.A. are set to expire on Jan. 31. Tenant advocates have warned the deadline could set off a wave of evictions for those who have not paid rent due to challenges tied to COVID-19.

“The tenant protections were incredibly effective in stopping the flow of people becoming unhoused,” Soto-Martínez said. “I don't think a tenant should be evicted for being a day late and $1 short.”

On Friday, the city council approved a package of new rules to help renters — a major expansion of tenant rights.

Shortly after taking office, L.A. Mayor Karen Bass declared a state of emergency on homelessness, allowing her to cut through red tape to create temporary and permanent housing for the estimated 42,000 people living unsheltered across the city. The declaration had to be approved by the city council.

Soto-Martínez lauded the mayor for “grabbing the bull by the horns” and said he’d be open to extending the emergency declaration. “These issues did not develop in six months, so we have to act with a sense of urgency, even if it takes longer than that,” he said.

LAHSA expects to release the 2023 homeless count results in late spring or early summer.

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