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Service providers take issue with census of L.A. homeless

They say the recent report finding a 38% drop in the county's homeless population does not jibe with what they're seeing. They worry the report could cause a drop in much-needed fundraising.

November 12, 2009|Cara Mia DiMassa

An L.A. city-county report showing a 38% drop in the homeless population has been met with consternation by the region's homeless service providers, who say the findings are inaccurate and could hurt their fundraising efforts at a time when the need is great.

The providers have written newspaper opinion pieces, public letters, blog postings and Tweets -- all taking issue with the census, conducted over three days in January. The study found that the number of homeless in the region dropped from 68,808 in 2007 to 42,694.

The change seemed particularly peculiar to some because it came in the midst of a recession, when many people across the region have lost their homes.

"I would say there was surprise and shock at the numbers," said David Snow, executive director of Upward Bound House, a Santa Monica-based agency that focuses on homeless families and low-income seniors. "They seem so contradictory to what we as service providers are seeing from the front lines."

Consider: The report said the number of homeless family members fell from 16,000 in 2007 to about 5,000 this year.

"We've been describing an overwhelming tsunami of families" seeking services, said Andy Bales, president of Union Rescue Mission. "There's no way that anybody who works with families would agree with" those numbers.

"I was expecting a recant of those published numbers by now, but apparently they are going to dig in and hold on to that."

More than 3,000 volunteers participated in the January census, conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and overseen by demographers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They counted the homeless populations in randomly selected census tracts, including what the authority considered "hot spot" and "non-hot spot" areas. In addition, 16 cities conducted complete counts of all the tracts within their boundaries. In all, homeless people were counted in 754 of the 2,054 census tracts in the county, said Michael Arnold, executive director of the joint city-county authority.

In addition, the group conducted inventories of each shelter in the counted areas on the same night volunteers were out on the streets, and made more than 28,000 phone calls to track populations that might not be counted in the street count, such as people living in unconverted garages. Arnold defended the count -- noting that, despite the outcry, no one has found problems with the way the count was conducted.

"Really, it's a very small number of agencies who have raised a cry, and most of them are family providers," Arnold said. "I think a lot of their hue and cry is anecdotally based, not data based. They are spreading disinformation."

In the wake of the criticism by the homeless service providers, Arnold and the demographers have gone back over the numbers, he said.

But in every instance, the numbers track, he said. And Arnold said that on the night of the count, neither family emergency shelters nor family transitional housing programs were full.

Critics of the census cited numbers maintained by CalWorks, a county program focused on services for low-income families with minor children. Bales said homeless families in CalWorks rose from 5,700 in 2007 to 8,100 in 2009 -- representing a total of 20,000 to 24,000 people. "Any fractional decrease in homeless individuals was outpaced by growth in families experiencing homelessness," he said.

But CalWorks maintains broader definitions of what constitutes the threshold for homelessness than does the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, which mandated the biennial homeless census. The chief distinction between the two is that CalWorks considers a family that has "received an eviction notice or notice to pay rent or quit" as homeless; HUD does not include that category.

"Folks know that but are using that information to their advantage," said Arnold. "It's an unfortunate use of an apples-to-oranges comparison."

To a certain extent, homelessness is a lagging economic indicator -- meaning it is possible that the numbers have risen between January and now, especially since the economic downturn started worsening only a few months before the count was conducted.

But several people in the homeless service field said the debate is not just about counting those without homes.

A drop in the population of homeless people in Los Angeles could make fundraising more difficult for some homeless service providers, especially those who rely on public acknowledgment of the homeless problem as a key part of their appeals.

Snow, the Upward Bound House director, said donations to his organization have not flagged since the Homeless Services Authority report came out. But he said he worried that the report promotes a perception that homelessness has been solved -- and that, in the midst of an already difficult economic climate, "We'll start seeing a reallocation of already diminished resources."

Counting the homeless has always been difficult. And some providers are optimistic that a new computer tracking system may bring clarity to the situation. The providers within the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's continuum of care are in the early stages of adopting a central homeless management system, which will give each person who comes through area shelters an ID number and allow for better tracking of the homeless throughout the county.

"Until we can count every head, that's as good as it gets," said Joel Roberts, chief executive of L.A.-based nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, who signed a public letter questioning the authority's count. "Forget whether there's a decrease -- concentrate on the fact that there are 48,000 homeless and not enough shelter beds or permanent housing."

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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