Is it just a van – or someone’s house? LA County’s homeless count weighs that and more

Homeless count volunteers JC Cangilla, left, and David Gaxiola, center, listen to Inglewood Deployment Site Coordinator Cinder Eller-Kimbell describe the area they would be counting on January 25. (Carla Hall/Los Angeles Times)

The man is sitting at the bus stop, the glow of his cigarette visible in the dark. It’s 10 p.m. Is he homeless… or waiting for a bus? Or both?

Our three-person team of volunteers on the second night of the 2023 spot count of homeless people in Los Angeles County will be making many calls like this during the two-plus hours we drive through the streets of the Los Angeles area. census in Inglewood that we were responsible for counting. I rarely feel like it was the right decision.

“Maybe we could ask him if he’s homeless,” I half-joke as we pass the bus shelter bench a second time. Nobody in the car thinks it’s a good idea. As the volunteers were leaving the deployment center on Wednesday evening, the coordinator, Cinder Eller-Kimbell, had asked us not to shine our flashlights in the homeless people’s eyes or talk to them. I had heard the same thing previous six times I have embarked on this count. And what would he have said anyway? “Why, yes, I a m homeless.”

The annual count, which is organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, sends thousands of enthusiastic volunteers across the county over three nights to scan the landscape for homeless people as well as tents and vehicles where people might be living. homeless people. The Homeless Services Authority also did a tally of the number of people in shelters on Wednesday.

Everyone in my group has already done it. So we all attended various training sessions and videos. JC Cangilla, who lives in Ladera Heights and is a father of two young children, drives. He gets to see a different neighborhood when he does this and he wants to do something to help. “I think it’s a housing issue,” he says.

We go down wide streets with tall palm trees. Above in the clear sky, Jupiter perched just above the crescent moon. We see no one except a man walking his dog. On we go to a shopping area.

“There’s a gentleman on a bicycle,” Cangilla said. Man digs through a trash can for recyclables. Plastic bags hang from the handlebars of his bicycle. We debate whether we think he’s homeless and slowly move on for further examination. We try to be discreet but he notices that we are watching. He wears baggy pants and a baggy shirt. We register him as homeless through an app on our phones. As it turns out, he’s our only homeless person to have seen him that night.

Last year, the homeless count came under fire when a few census tracts showed seemingly inexplicable decreases or increases in the number of homeless people. Most controversial was an area of ​​Venice where a few hundred homeless people, tents and vehicles had previously been counted, but in 2022 they were zero. Critics blamed glitches in the app which was being used for the first time by volunteers to record their findings. LAHSA officials stuck to the 2022 numbers, but this year they used a different app from a vendor experienced in delivering homeless count apps.

Although we had no problems using the new app on Wednesday evening, LAHSA officials had trouble receiving the information. Our team was asked to email a screenshot of the tables. LAHSA spokesperson Ahmad Chapman told me in an email that it was a bandwidth issue that the provider later fixed. Data for 24 of the 27 census tracts counted in Inglewood on Wednesday had been successfully entered. The three unregistered would be counted later by teams coordinated by LAHSA, he said.

Counting is neither perfect nor scientific. But it is required by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and it provides useful data.

The Rand Corp. has just unveiled the results of a year investigation homelessness in the poor neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Venice and Hollywood. The report presents a much deeper look at homelessness in these hotspots and how it has fluctuated over the course of a year. This is valuable information to have. But it can’t replace spot counting, which collects a spectacular amount of information three nights in a row.

Some have suggested that we stop relying on the count and pull more specific information from the database of homeless people filled in by outreach workers and service providers as well as those who regularly interact with homeless people. shelter on a daily basis, such as firefighters and librarians.

All of these methods could complete the count. But let’s not forget that homeless people move around more than most housed people. The populations of the camps come and go. It will always be an approximate census. And even if last year’s number was artificially low, 69,000 homeless is still far too many. Whether or not we know the exact number, we know for sure that there is not enough housing for them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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