Rand finds homelessness up in L.A. hot spots instead of decreases

In welcome news that was immediately met with skepticism, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reported last summer that homelessness appears to be on the decline.

After the county’s street population increased by nearly 23% in two years, the county’s street population grew by just another 5% in two years of the pandemic, the census showed at the time of 2022, deflecting fears that economic stress is killing a large number driven by people from their homes.

Most surprisingly, LAHSA found significant decreases in three communities widely identified as hot spots for homelessness: Skid Row, Hollywood, and Venice.

But a survey released Thursday by Rand Corp. was published casts doubt on these results. Researchers focusing on these three areas, returning dozens of times over a year, saw large increases in vulnerable homelessness: 13% in Skid Row, 14.5% in Hollywood, and 32% in Venice, with an average of 18%.

The Rand study, conducted from September 2021 to October 2022, does not draw a conclusion about the accuracy of LAHSA’s estimate of the total number of homeless people in Los Angeles County last year, 69,144.

Instead, it makes the case count the annual three days (this year’s took place this week and ended Thursday evening) is subject to a slew of errors — human, technological and statistical — as thousands of volunteers record their observations on cellphones as they walk and drive the county streets. The shortcomings of this approach, the researchers argue, limit its value as a measure of trends and as a tool for making policy decisions.

Citing city actions to evict homeless people from Echo Park and Venice and a court order requiring the city to provide shelters, study author Jason Ward concludes that “these policies and activities were carried out without the help of up-to-date, high-quality… Data have been formulated on the number of people living vulnerable in these areas’ or data on their ‘specific housing experiences, needs and preferences’.

By focusing on small areas known to be heavily populated by the homeless and surveying them repeatedly over a year, the $260,000 study gained the insight that a sprawling one-time count could not.

For example, the study found that a three-day cleanup that removed tents from Venice’s Centennial Park in June was followed by a 13% drop in the count the next month. The decline was caused by fewer tents and temporary shelters, while the number of cars, vans and RVs remained the same. But later that month the population had recovered to its previous levels.

That kind of information would be valuable to officials weighing policies like the city’s anti-camping ordinance and new Mayor Karen Bass’s Inside Safe street cleaning program, Ward said in an interview.

“We found some interesting evidence of the kind of packaging solutions that will work better,” he said.

More than 80% of respondents said they would accept offers of permanent supportive housing, a hotel or motel, or lodging if they offered privacy. Only 30% said they went to group accommodation and 35% to a sober dorm. The most common reasons for resisting housing were lack of privacy (40%) and security concerns (35%).

But two other forms of housing, not widely advocated as solutions to homelessness, showed unexpected promise. Almost half of those surveyed said they lived in an apartment or house with other people or at a secure campsite with organized tent sites.

Many of Rand’s demographic findings were consistent with those regularly reported by the LAHSA: The homeless population is predominantly male and disproportionately black. About half of the respondents reported either chronic health problems or mental health problems or both. The people who live on the streets are mostly from Los Angeles County.

But the Rand study found a much higher incidence of chronic homelessness. Nearly 80% told Rand surveyors they had been homeless for more than a year and 57% for more than three years. The LAHSA count for chronic homelessness—either one year of continuous homelessness or one year over a three-year period—in the three boroughs was about 50%.

“It appears that most people living vulnerable in Los Angeles would be considered chronically homeless simply because of their current homelessness,” the report said.

A detailed comparison of Rand’s results with LAHSA’s, Ward said, showed a “mixed bag, remarkably consistent in some cases, far off in others.”

LASHA counters recorded more than twice as many RVs as Rands in one census precinct in Venice, and half as many in another. The number of people counted in some Hollywood tracts was nearly different in others.

Ward, who has taken annual censuses, attributes such differences to training.

“For me, the training took 30 minutes for the app, 15 minutes for security and a minute and a half for identifying people in different types of shelters,” he said. “You really have to teach people how to make those decisions, not just how to use the app and hit the right button.”

To ensure accuracy and consistency, Rand’s paid surveyors received three days of training. Two counters worked independently on each block and then averaged their results. Significant deviations were checked again.

Unlike LAHSA’s study, the Rand report presents its estimates with upper and lower bounds, recognizing a fundamental ambiguity in LAHSA’s counting process: Counters are instructed to count every person and tent or dwelling they see , leading to possible double counting of people seen outside their tents or shelters.

Rand surveyors asked people where they slept. For his lower estimate, Rand corrected the individual count for the percentage who reported sleeping in shelters or tents.

Ward refrained from comparing the raw numbers from the two studies simply because the areas it covered were significantly smaller than those used by LAHSA to define communities and because the official census covered two years. LAHSA canceled the 2021 census due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in an interview, Ward said he was confident LAHSA’s count missed the increases found by his study. The differences were too great to dismiss.

The release of the Rand study on the final day of the LAHSA’s three-day 2023 census was largely coincidental, Ward said. The report was ready earlier, but its release was delayed out of deference to the official census, which it considers valuable despite its shortcomings.

“We don’t want it to throw away the value of taking part in the census,” Ward said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-26/rand-survey-finds-homelessness-up-18-in-l-a-hot-spots-where-the-official-count-recorded-decreases Rand finds homelessness up in L.A. hot spots instead of decreases

Alley Einstein

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