161,000 homeless in California? Try 1.6 million

The annual homeless count is designed to produce outcomes officials want — Big enough numbers to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds, but not so big as to expose the true scale of the humanitarian crisis in the world’s fifth largest economy

In 2020 there were 161,458 homeless people in California, officially. If that strikes you as a peculiarly precise number your spider senses are tuned up. The true number is much, much higher, like by an order of magnitude or more. That’s the conclusion of numerous studies going back decades, including data-driven analyses by the nonpartisan Economic Roundtable, the National Institutes for Research, scholars at Cornell University, and many others.

Consider: According to the California Department of Education, in 2018 more than 204,000 students experienced homelessness in the state, a number that has grown consistently over the last decade. Obviously, both of those numbers – 161,458 total homeless in a state where more than 200,000 children alone experience homelessness every year – cannot be true. And the Education Department’s numbers are based on actual reporting from school districts based on personal interaction with students. In contrast, official total numbers are based on what can only be described as glorified tea leaf reading.

That’s because pursuant to federal mandates, every year cities nationwide engage in an elaborate act of performance art called the homeless point in time (“PIT”) count. On the surface it’s a census of the unhoused, used to guide policy and – crucially – government spending on the crisis. In reality it’s designed to produce the numbers officials want, numbers big enough to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds but not so big as to reveal the true scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding every second of every day in the not-so-golden-anymore state.

Official counts are not just unreliable, they’re disastrously misleading

The PIT count fundamentally distorts our understanding of homelessness because it only captures a small and very specific subset of the population, those living openly outdoors. The so-called “hardcore homeless.” Given that the vast majority of homeless people – as many as three-quarters – have some form of shelter at any given time, the magnitude of this limitation can scarcely be overstated. The PIT count actually ignores most homeless people. Worse, it ignores the ones who can most benefit from early interventions to prevent them from falling into street life. And equally importantly, regardless of population dynamics there are monumental policy differences between assisting 161,000 people versus a million or more. We’re collecting the wrong data in support of the wrong policies.

There are other methodological problems with the count. The “raw” data – the chit sheets volunteers use to record their counts, about which more presently – passes through several levels of custody: Volunteers do the counts, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) employees collect and collate the data, then hand it over to experts at the USC School of Social work to crunch the actual numbers. And while the core methodology hasn’t changed procedures vary slightly from year to year and city to city, making comparisons all but impossible. That last fact is crucial: Without meaningful comparisons over time, it is literally impossible to know if billions in taxpayer dollars are having an impact. Of course, that sort of accountability is kryptonite to government bureaucracies like LAHSA.

Like the data the quality of volunteers also varies widely. I volunteered for the 2019 and 2020 counts. The experiences felt more like a matter of doing something for the sake of doing something than serious efforts to assess the population. There are no prerequisites, anyone can sign up. Consequently the vast majority have no experience with census-taking or any particular familiarity with the issue of homelessness. There were small numbers of “old hands” who had participated in multiple counts, as well as a couple of employees from a local homeless nonprofit. But most depended on a 45-minute training session.

The training was like a bad SNL sketch. Both years they started late and were comically mismanaged, to the point that in 2020 the city workers doing the training couldn’t agree on the rules. In the middle of the training in front of 50 or more people two of them got into an argument about the rules regarding counting disabled homeless people. I won’t describe the physical appearance of these two taxpayer-paid city employees, but trust me when I say your imagination doesn’t have the range. Mine certainly didn’t. You can’t make this stuff up.

The count itself was unserious, again feeling like doing something to do it. Teams of three people drove or walked around designated areas, at night. I was in a car group both times. The driver drove, the front passenger counted, and rear passenger made chit marks on the LAHSA form (apparently officials believe the average Angeleno would be overwhelmed by the dual tasks of counting and making pencil marks on a piece of paper; then again if their trainers are any indication of the general quality of LAHSA employees you can see where that concern might originate).

There are more restrictions on the process than in a TSA security line. Volunteers are told to have zero contact with the people they’re counting. Those in cars cannot get out of their cars and those on foot cannot look inside tents or knock on the doors of buildings or vehicles to assess how many people are inside. They are told to assume one to a tent or car and two to an RV. Buildings are completely off-limits, which means by definition people with temporary lodgings – a family member’s couch, an empty building – are missed. There could be a warehouse with 50 people squatting inside and not one would be counted. Likewise, entire areas are excluded from the count altogether, including national and state parks where many people camp.

Counting the homeless turns out to be about this scientific.

As noted, the PIT count’s shortcomings are well-documented. It’s not some wacky conspiracy theory – it’s been studied by researchers and scholars for decades. That it continues to be used is an excellent example of the homeless industrial complex at work. At this point, after a half century of “fighting homelessness,” there’s simply too much money and too many jobs at stake for the establishment to admit they’re lying dog-faced pony soldiers when it comes to the true scale of the crisis. It’s a matter of producing the desired outcomes to sustain public sector jobs and billions in federal, state, and local spending.

We’ve been here before

The other agonizing truth is that we’ve been down this path before, with the so-called War on Drugs. That half-century effort did nothing to stem drug use and addiction but did produce millions of hideously unjustified, life-destroying prison sentences that support the multi-billion dollar public defender, bail bond, and incarceration industries. It also created a massive federal bureaucracy called the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as a new branch of the Justice Department, and birthed an entire industry that today employs hundreds of thousands of lawyers, administrative law judges, clerks, recordkeepers, analysts, and the rest of the usual bureaucratic rogues’ gallery. The one thing it most assuredly did not do was end the drug crisis.

Before the War on Drugs was the War on Poverty, which did reduce poverty somewhat in its first decade (though how much of even that success was due to governmental efforts versus the once-in-history postwar U.S. economy remains a matter of debate). In the decades since it has become another hydra-headed government patronage system, the precursor of the modern homeless industrial complex.

Anyone watching the homeless industrial complex metastasize should not be the least bit surprised. Homelessness is the new crack – that the government’s failed War on Poverty begat the failed War on Drugs which led directly to the current failing war on homelessness should, again, surprise no one. They’re the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan of domestic policy. Like those foreign failures these domestic disasters unequivocally are bipartisan (less so in California, where the other party – what are they called again? – has not the slightest relevance). Keep your eyes on the appropriately Byzantine-sounding United States Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness, which currently sports a mere $3.8 million budget and 20 employees. Check back in four or five years.

Unless and until policymakers begin dealing in reality when it comes to the true scope of the homeless crisis California – and the United States – will continue using bad data to support bad (and expensive) public policy. In a sense the political class has painted itself into a corner with the PIT count. They’ve relied on artificially low numbers for so long, at least two decades, that if the true number were to become widely known it would destroy their credibility on the issue that a majority of Californians rank as their single biggest concern.

Or would it? Californias are proving a shockingly apathetic lot. As our streets are handed over to mere anarchy, as crime spikes everywhere, as quality of life plummets by virtually every measure we keep electing the same people who got us into this mess, while the opposition party continues its death spiral into Trumpian irrelevance. So perhaps it doesn’t matter, in the end, what the true number of homeless is in California.

After all, at the rate we’re going the difference between housed and unhoused will soon be all but irrelevant.

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