When the results of the 2022 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count are released on Thursday, Sept. 8, it will mean more than just a number to nonprofits in the trenches, politicians on the stump and affordable housing advocates.
The new data will be bandied about by office-seekers some of whom will criticize or condemn Los Angeles city and Los Angeles County leaders for failing to rectify the persistent problem.
But those handing out food, water and motel vouchers to thousands of unhoused will take a deep dive into the data collected during the February 2022 point-in-time count — to pinpoint distribution of resources by location and need.
In short, the annual count data, scheduled for public release by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) after being validated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is even more significant than in recent years. This year’s count is the first count done in two years because the 2021 count was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It sets the tone for addressing the most visible social, economic and health problem in Southern California. While some nonprofit leaders say the pandemic, unemployment, rising rents and a lack of affordable housing made the problem worse, others point to a steady flow of COVID-19 relief dollars used for temporary and permanent housing.
“I think we will see an increase” in the number of homeless, said Amber Sheikh, who heads the CD (Council District) 15 Working Group on Homelessness in the Harbor Area of Los Angeles. “We’ve housed more people than ever before but more people are becoming homeless every day.”
This year’s count took place from Feb. 22 to Feb. 24 across Los Angeles County. But cold weather and the pandemic may have lowered the count, some say.
“During the count it was the coldest night of the year,” said Andy Bales, president and CEO of the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles. “Plus, I am seeing more families in cars and more people in RVs. It is very hard to find mobile people during a count.”
Bales, who calls the count “a guesstimate,” says the official census can bring the problem to the forefront. “The count will show a vast majority of people who are homeless in L.A. suffering on the streets,” he said. He noted that the unsheltered homeless amount to 70%, the highest percent of any city in the U.S. — while 30% live in shelters and other housing.
Finding homeless families also can be a difficult task said Karen Roberson, founder and director of Family Promise of San Gabriel Valley, a nonprofit that provides temporary shelter to unhoused families in Rosemead, Alhambra, San Gabriel, Monrovia and Arcadia.
“(Homeless) families are much more hidden. Families are frightened that someone will take their kids away and aren’t quite visible to the public,” she said. “My hunch is that the homeless families are undercounted.”
Like Sheikh, she predicts the count will show an increase in unhoused people in L.A. County over 2020. “There are probably a larger number of people who are homeless, when adding in COVID and the other circumstances,” Roberson said.
Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, president and CEO of LA Family Housing based in the San Fernando Valley, had a different view. She thinks the temporary shelter programs and newly built permanent housing implemented in the past two years will put a dent in the homeless number.
“Between 2020 and 2022 there have been more resources poured into our rehousing industry than any year prior,” she said. “I believe we will see the impact of those COVID relief dollars.”
Her group went from establishing five interim housing sites to 11 in the past two years and from seven new apartment buildings to 12, she said.
“If our experience is multiplied by our partners across the county, I believe we will see a positive impact in the numbers. I don’t believe we are going to see the kinds of significant increases (in homelessness) as we’ve seen in years passed,” Klasky-Gamer added.
In 2020, the county’s homeless population grew by 12.7% from the previous year. L.A. city’s numbers increased by 14.2%. In L.A. city, 41,290 people were homeless in 2020, compared to 36,165 in 2019, according to LAHSA’s homeless report. Countywide, 66,433 were homeless in 2020 compared to 58,936 in the 2019 count.
The LAHSA count does not include homeless counts done independently in the cities of Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach.
Long Beach counted 3,296 people who were homeless earlier this year, a 62% increase since 2020. Pasadena’s count reached 512 people, a slight drop from 527 in 2020. Glendale counted 225 persons homeless, up from 169 in 2020, a 33% increase.
Klasky-Gamer also pointed to the Project Roomkey program that began shortly after the start of the pandemic, focused on sheltering homeless people in vacant hotel rooms. LA Family alone moved 700 people indoors in the last two years. Those in hotels or motels are counted as “sheltered homeless,” while those in permanent housing are no longer counted as homeless.
For nonprofits, the count is more about the location of homeless clusters than an aggregate number. A look at detailed statistics from the count would help LA Family Housing to adjust the allocation of resources. An overall higher number may increase state and federal resources directed to the problem.
Sheikh remembers a previous count that indicated a large number of homeless living in certain area parks. Her group shifted its food and clothing allocations and other services to these locations, she said.
“Data gives us some idea of how to prioritize resources, otherwise it is overwhelming,” Sheikh said.
Besides helping service organizations to better help the unhoused, the release of the count for Los Angeles County and Los Angeles city could become politicized, particularly in city, county and state races.
“One thing is certain: Candidates will often repeat the number,” wrote John Pitney Jr., the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, in an emailed response.
“Expect candidates to talk more about homelessness in the days ahead,” Pitney wrote. “In particular, expect Rick Caruso to cite it as an example of a failed political establishment.”
Caruso, a developer, is running for mayor of Los Angeles against Karen Bass, a member of Congress representing areas west of downtown L.A. Both made solving homelessness a major issue in the campaign. Each recently unveiled their own plans for adding tiny homes, more vouchers for temporary housing, more shelters and construction of permanent housing.
While L.A. city settled a lawsuit brought by a homeless advocacy group, agreeing to spend billions on more housing units and beds for unhoused residents, especially in parts of Skid Row, L.A. County has refused to join the settlement.
L.A. County said that since the passage of Measure H in 2017 that raised millions for battling homelessness, the county has housed more than 75,000 people experiencing homelessness and in the last three years has ramped up shelter capacity by 60%.
Bales hopes the new count and the publicity it gets from politicians talking about it may create a more united front.
“It is time for our city and county to be united in one effort to address homelessness,” said Bales. “We all need to come together and do whatever it takes to immediately shelter as many people as possible.”