Los Angeles homeless count raises doubts about accuracy

When the Los Angeles Homeless Authority released a chart this month detailing the number of homeless people by all of the borough’s census tracts, those who knew Venice were incredulous.

LAHSA said there are no vulnerable people — no tents, no occupied cars or RVs, and no people living outdoors — in Venice’s north-west neighborhood, notorious as ground zero for homelessness.

It wasn’t just the number – so grossly wrong it couldn’t have been a statistical error – that shocked her.

How, they wondered, had LAHSA blown up the county’s most closely monitored census precinct, one regularly manned by residents taking their own censuses and more recently by a team of professional surveyors working for the Rand Corp. worked, was searched?

The LAHSA did not respond to questions about the Venice numbers, but released a statement Friday night defending the integrity of the count.

“During the count, we received multiple reports of user and technology errors stemming from lack of training and poor internet connectivity,” Ahmad Chapman, LAHSA’s communications director, said in the statement. “Despite these errors, we are confident in the accuracy of this year’s homeless count because LAHSA and its partners took several steps to account for what happened on the ground.”

Whether the result of human error or a systemic error, the botched Venice count has compounded criticism of the annual point-in-time count as inaccurate.

“I just don’t think there’s any point in a point-in-time census to really help people,” said Connie Brooks, a Venice resident who takes part in the unofficial census, which consistently shows more than 200 homeless people in the area.

At City Hall this week, Council President Nury Martinez presented two motions calling for an audit of this year’s census, conducted over three days in February, and those of previous years, and an assessment of whether future censuses should be shared with third parties.

One of the motions cites wide disparities in the increase or decrease in homelessness in different parts of the city since the last census in 2020. Although the city-wide average showed a modest increase of 1.7%, there have been wide variations in some wards; The most extreme was an 80% increase in one county in the western San Fernando Valley and a 40% drop in the Westside County, which includes Venice.

These disparities have raised concerns that the census does not accurately reflect the progress made by some councilors in providing shelter and housing, and may reflect declines in some boroughs due to the opening of shelters in others. The distinctions are significant because, according to a settlement in a federal court case, the city has a responsibility to provide shelter or shelter for 60% of the vulnerable homeless in each municipality.

Councilor Kevin de León, who supported the motion, questioned the new count’s finding that his northeastern district had 231 fewer people in shelters than in 2020, but 1,818 more people on the streets.

Between the two counts, De León Hundreds of shelters opened, including a tiny residential village in Highland Park, two Project Homekey motels in El Sereno, and a 483-room shelter at the LA Grand Hotel. (A second Tiny Home Village at Eagle Rock opened after the 2022 census.)

De León’s chief of staff, Jennifer Barraza, acknowledged that shelter “decompression” — reducing beds to allow for distancing during the pandemic — may explain some of the discrepancy, but found other inconsistencies. For example, she said she couldn’t understand the 6% drop in homelessness in Skid Row, where there are hundreds of shelters.

“These beds were also decompressed,” Barraza said. The people in it “either went elsewhere or they weren’t counted. It feels like there’s a lot of things that aren’t being told in the data we have.”

Similarly, the census noted an increase of 225 RVs in Boyle Heights, Barraza said.

“I’m not sure the increase in RVs is right,” she said.

Councilor Bob Blumenfield said he was puzzled by the 60 percent increase in homeless people without shelters reported in his western San Fernando Valley district, even as more than 200 people moved off the streets into a shelter.

“I go to our community at least once a month to visit the homeless and my staff are on the streets every day,” Blumenfield said in a statement. “The increase in people without protection according to the LAHSA census does not reflect the reality we are seeing. More transparency about this process would be incredibly welcome because we just don’t get answers that match up.”

Blumenfield said his employees who volunteered for the count kept paper records because they found the phone app was buggy. They also found census tracts outside his district that were included in his census.

“Math is math and those discrepancies, coupled with app bugs as well as card issues, raise some serious questions,” he said.

Jason Ward, associate director of the Rand Center for Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, said he launched his survey in three high-profile neighborhoods — Venice, Hollywood and Skid Row — to measure the gap between when the 2021 census was canceled and through to collect data that the annual census misses.

“How does it change over time?” he wanted to know. “Does it change if you do it day or night?”

Rand’s team of experienced street workers had an advantage over the massive force of lightly trained volunteers who sift through thousands of tracts at specific times according to the annual census.

“I feel like we’re basically doing the same thing as them [point in time] count, but do it systematically, with well-trained teams doing it consistently over time.”

Ward said he was surprised LAHSA didn’t flag the Venice count as a problem when it revealed the number of people without shelter had dropped from 509 to 0.

LAHSA had ample warning that something was wrong. Shortly after the February street census, a blogger named Christopher LeGras posted an account of software bugs he experienced while volunteering while counting Venice’s wing. He said a new phone application that allowed counters to tabulate their results in the field crashed. Instead, he texted his numbers to an LAHSA worker, but wasn’t sure if they would be taken.

LeGras posted a screenshot from his cellphone showing that he captured 85 homeless people, 43 apparently occupied cars, 29 vans, 27 RVs/RVs and 67 tents or temporary shelters, representing nearly 300 vulnerable people.

Those numbers matched exactly what was recorded by Rand researchers who spent three nights inspecting this census district in January. On average, they found 86 people, 38 cars/vans, 18 RVs, and 55 tents or temporary shelters.

In a post following the release of the LAHSA results, LeGras unleashed a rebuke.

“The lived experiences of both accommodated and non-accommodated people in Venice leave no doubt that the crisis persists with extreme intensity, despite the city’s high-profile — let alone very expensive — efforts to address it,” he wrote .

In his statement, LAHSA’s Chapman said that in areas where the app or volunteers weren’t recording the data, employees conducted their own census.

But that doesn’t explain how zero homeless people were counted in this critical census wing.

Venice’s botched numbers may shed some light on the 38.5% drop that Councilor Mike Bonin attributed in a celebratory tweet to “Los Angeles’ largest and most successful place-based homelessness intervention program, which has seen nearly 300 people move from tents in Venice into homes.” Beach and Westchester Park.”

If you add the 250 to 300 people missing from the Venice census, Bonin’s district would still show an impressive 29% improvement.

But local activists, whose distrust of timing counts led them to conduct their own, see a largely distorted picture. Although in 2021 a band of tents and makeshift shelters have largely been removed from the Venice boardwalk, dazed people still wander the nearby streets, one lined with RVs and another with tents.

A different model is needed to restore confidence in the count.

“We all agree that the way to help people is to get accurate, real-time numbers,” Brooks said. “How does a one-time point-in-time count help get people into an apartment? I understand that funds are allocated in this way. But how does it help people on the street?”

They point to a model being developed by a national initiative called Built for Zero. The group works with about 105 communities, including Jacksonville, Fla., and Denver, to help them use so-called “name” data — information collected by shelters and outreach staff about individuals — to build a continuous picture of it to get homelessness.

“That’s the end state we’re trying to achieve – for communities to know at all times how many people are affected by homelessness,” said Beth Sandor, director of Built for Zero. “It’s not a one-off phenomenon. It will never be perfect. It’s a dynamic problem. People move in and out of homelessness all the time. But that there is a high level of confidence that we cover the geography and the majority of the population.”

That could be a big boost for Los Angeles, Rand researcher Ward said.

“It seems really great if your population is manageable and small enough,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s doable in LA. That’s a lot of people to know by name.”

Times contributor Dave Zahniser contributed to this report

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-24/doubts-raised-over-the-los-angeles-homeless-count-is-it-time-for-a-new-way Los Angeles homeless count raises doubts about accuracy

Alley Einstein

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