I participated in L.A.’s annual homeless count this week. It was a mess.

Feb. 23, 2022. Thirty minutes into the annual homeless count the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) volunteer staging area was virtually empty. Photo by Jessica Rogers

I can say this about my experience volunteering this year for the annual homeless “point in time” (PIT) count compared to the last time I participated in 2019: The employees of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) were nicer and more competent. Unlike 2019 they didn’t get into an argument with each other in front of volunteers over how to count people dwelling in tents and vehicles. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the good news ends.

I was there with my friends Jessica and David. We wanted to volunteer and also to see how the whole thing worked two years into the COVID pandemic. Double bluff. As soon as we stepped on the manicured lawn of the city affordable housing development playing host to this particular region of the count, a woman who described herself as a volunteer accosted us and unintentionally set the tone for the night. She was collecting signatures on a petition to put a voter initiative on the November ballot to increase homeless funding in L.A. While perhaps not strictly illegal it was unpalatable for a public entity to allow self-interested politicking during the official homeless count. And suffice it to say the Homeless Industrial Complex’s big problem isn’t a lack of funds.

In any event she didn’t have many people to pitch. Around a hundred volunteers had registered for the 2022 count in Venice, but the sign-in sheets were as blank when we returned at the end of our count as they were when we arrived. Maybe two dozen showed up on the coldest night of winter to walk and drive around Venice counting people living on the streets. The mercury hovered in the low 40s and Accuweather’s real feel estimate was 37, which in L.A. qualifies as positively sub-arctic. It’s a fair bet that few people were eager to walk around in the freezing cold in the midst of the ongoing COVID pandemic, vaccinated or not. In fact it was a double whammy, the cold keeping some would-be volunteers inside and a date change because of the omicron surge taking it off other people’s radars altogether.

As it turned out these were just the beginnings of the problems we’d encounter while attempting to do our small part in the critical task of figuring out just how many people are languishing in their own personal Hells on the streets of L.A.

At the end of the night the sign-in sheets were still mostly empty. Two of the signatures on these pages were from my group. Photo by Christopher LeGras

The little blue app that couldn’t

The mood at the Tabour Courts affordable housing project on Fourth Street was rather desultory. Granted, one doesn’t expect a homeless count to be festive, exactly, but a bit of public spiritedness would have been nice. The only signage was a hand-scrawled message on a big piece of butcher paper pointing people to the staging area on the lawn in front of the building. The set-up consisted of five portable tables with shade shelters, along with a refreshment area where Death Water was the primary offering, a grimly appropriate if unintentional metaphor for the task at hand.

At any given time there were more LAHSA employees than volunteers, the latter of whom never numbered more than half a dozen including the three of us. The employees who checked us in were eager and mindful. In particular they were doing whatever they could to help people install and set up the new app the agency rolled out this year, undoubtedly at exorbitant cost to the taxpaying public. Called “Akido” it mimics the paper forms used in the past. At least, it mimics them in theory. From installing the app to submitting the final count it was extremely difficult to navigate. The old paper forms were better.

This is 2022, and we live in California. It should not take five people, including two of the LAHSA reps who presumably received training beforehand, several minutes to figure out how to install what amounts to a basic counting app. Akido is a perfect example of technology addressing non-existent problem, in the process creating problems all its own. For example, the app on my iPhone required me to scroll up and down to record counts in different categories. The boxes for homeless individuals and youths (defined as 18-24) were up top while RVs, tents, and makeshift shelters required a scroll. It’s hard enough to keep up when you’re riding in a car going 25 or 30 miles an hour with two other people calling out in rapid staccato, “camper,” “RV,” and “one, two, three — five people!” It was doable on paper, when you just made quick chits. Add in the unnecessary scroll, the small text, and the fact that I often had to hit the tiny little “+” boxes on the screen two or three times with my fat fingers for each count and it became borderline impossible.

It didn’t help to cover the same streets multiple times, because of course no one remembers every single individual, vehicle, tent, and makeshift dwelling they counted on the first pass. We slowed and Jessica, who was driving, turned on the hazards, but that only works for so long on a major thoroughfare like Neilson Avenue, along which are scores of individuals, tents, and parked vehicles to be counted as we zoomed by. As a result, in significant swaths of our zone we ended up not so much counting as guesstimating. We ultimately counted 61 adults and 24 young people (defined as 18-24 years old; we used our best judgment) along with 43 cars, 29 vans, 27 campers, 54 tents, and 67 makeshift shelters. Conservatively assuming one occupant per car, van, tent, and makeshift shelter and two per camper we found a total of 332 people. We took the process seriously and were as accurate as possible. For example, had I not known that the parking lot at Westminster Park is a designated (or at least a de facto) “safe parking” area, thanks to taking my dogs there over the years, we’d have missed 15 vehicles altogether.

That’s another big weakness in the PIT count’s centralized approach: There’s little local input. According to one of the LAHSA employees most people do volunteer in or immediately near their own neighborhoods, so there’s at least some local knowledge in the process. The problem is the count isn’t designed to capture and utilize that knowledge. People who live in Venice know where to look for homeless people. They don’t need an elaborate government count to know where the camps and gathering places are because they see them everyday. They can tell you which drugs are being sold in which RVs and which makeshift shelters are street brothels. Despite the fact that homelessness is international news in any given neighborhood it’s still an intensely personal issue both for the homeless and the housed. Residents get to know the contours of homelessness in their community, and the PIT count fails to make use of that invaluable knowledge. It isn’t even on the radar.

Volunteers are prohibited from entering property or knocking on the doors of buildings or vehicles. According to experts the vast majority of homeless people have some form of shelter some or most of the time. The people living openly on the streets for long periods are a separate population, with different challenges and needs. They also are the most difficult to help, particularly over the long term. In contrast, people who are marginally housed (couch surfing or living temporarily with friends or relatives, for example), who are on the verge of homelessness, or who are homeless only periodically could be caught in the social safety net before they reach the point of full-time street living, which all too often is the point of no return. By focusing exclusively on that street population the PIT count warps the very notion of what it means to be homeless and therefore the policies and services brought to bear (Bloomberg CityLab has a good discussion of the downstream consequences of the count’s emphasis on the so-called “hardcore” homeless). LAHSA and USC do extrapolate populations and conduct their own analysis of sheltered homeless people.

The fact remains, however, the official PIT count of street homeless is the number policymakers use to set priorities and budgets. That’s a huge problem. Like the overall affordable housing crisis official policy is solving the wrong problems. Street homelessness is the ultimate symptom of failure, be it personal or institutional or both, not the cause of it. Officials are prescribing aspirin for a brain tumor.

“Oh, yeah, that seems safe”

The app was less of a hassle when we got out of the car and walked the Venice boardwalk, simply because there was time to work through its limitations and do the necessary double and triple checking. Which raises another issue: In order to perform the count many volunteers venture into places that are marginally safe even in broad daylight. As David and I walked through the bitterly cold wind we heard all manner of screams and noises. At one point a series of primal, guttural sounds emanated from a walkway between buildings.

“Should we go check it out?” I asked.

David looked at me like I’d just asked if he wanted to drink some Drano (he’s one of the mellowest dudes I’ve ever met, his reaction an indication of just how stupid my suggestion was). “Oh, yeah,” he said, “that seems safe.” We skipped that particular corner of the Inferno.

Just a dude in a neon vest wandering the Venice boardwalk at night. What could possibly go wrong? Photo by Christopher LeGras

The beach was a particular conundrum. Folks sleep and hang out there all the time and at all hours. Of course, no one in their right mind wanders into the immense darkness that is Venice Beach at night any more than they would heed a friend’s suggestion to investigate horror movie sounds in a dark alleyway. More to the point, even if we were not possessed of a basic self-preservation instinct it would take hours just to cover the massive expanse of sand, not to mention the skate park, bathrooms, bike paths, and so on. All are places where homeless people congregate and sleep. It’s impossible to know how many dozens or scores we missed, just like no one will ever know how many people are living in the San Gabriel and Santa Monica Mountains, in the bluffs along PCH, and other vast open spaces. Just like no one knows how many abandoned buildings are occupied, nor the ravines and even sewers where the most vulnerable find their last refuge.

Even on foot going block by block, with the luxury of all the time in the world, it was physically impossible to count all the homeless people on every street. You cannot possibly count every alley, every park, every ravine, every space homeless people find in which to hide themselves. Los Angeles County encompasses 4,753 square miles. The task certainly cannot be accomplished in two hour windows over three nights. In February. It would not be the least bit surprising if our estimate of 332 people in the square mile we covered was off by as much as 100%.

It’s frickin’ freezing in here, Mr. Bigglesworth

So there are problems with the app and with the process, problems sufficient to negate the value of whatever final number LAHSA produces after it and the USC School of Social Work spend four months crunching the numbers. There are other unaddressed issues, from the wildly varying quality of individual volunteer effort to the fact that LASHA, USC, and the federal government adjust the process year-to-year based on experience. Which is well and good, except as the Economic Roundtable has pointed out it makes year-to-year comparisons fraught if not meaningless.

Last but not least is the matter of weather. The PIT count normally happens in January, but this year it was delayed this year by omicron. In other words, the dead of winter. The delay had a serious consequence: As mentioned overnight temperatures during the count hovered in the low 40s and dropped to around freezing with the wind factor, making it not just the coldest week of the season but among the coldest snaps ever recorded in west L.A., full stop. Additionally there were sporadic showers. Everyone knows when the weather gets rough many homeless who otherwise live in public spaces find shelter. Entire encampments temporarily vanish.

That’s in L.A. The Chicago PIT count took place on the night of February 9. The high that day was 39 and the low that night was 37 degrees, with the wind chill dropping the mercury into the low 20s. On January 25, the day of New York’s count, the Big Apple’s high was 43 and the low was 28, also with significant a wind chill factor. Anyone outdoors for any extended period of time in those environments without serious preparations and gear would be dead. No wonder, then, that despite having nearly identical poverty rates to L.A. Chicago only recorded 5,209 homeless people out of a population of 2.7 million and NYC recorded a mere 2,376 despite having double L.A.’s population. The homeless in those cities who weren’t inside were on their way to California.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says that holding the count “on one of the coldest nights of the year can be very effective in raising public awareness of the challenges faced by homeless people without shelter.” It seems lost on the good people at HUD that the most effective way to raise public awareness would be to count the homeless population accurately. The 2020 count estimated 44,000 homeless in the city of L.A. What might people’s reactions be if, say, the number was closer to 100,000, maybe as high as 150,000? Consider that way back in 2005 HUD tweaked the count methodology to attempt to capture more people living in “hidden” homeless populations. The count that year was 88,000. That was nearly two decades ago, and everyone knows the crisis has gotten worse, not better. Yet according to the official count the population has actually dropped by half. Not a chance. The three of us counted 332 people in a single square mile. On one of the coldest nights in history. In the span of barely two hours. Extrapolate that, LAHSA.

In any case, we are decades into one of the worst humanitarian crises in American history. It’s delusional to suggest people are unaware of it. We are watching our communities literally burn. We are more than good on the awareness front. What’s needed are accuracy and accountability, and the PIT count accomplishes neither. Indeed, at a certain point it’s reasonable to ask what the count’s purpose really is. Is it a data collection exercise or just another example of governmental sound and fury accomplishing nothing, an exercise in performative politics?

Scrap the the whole exercise and put responsibility where it belongs

My research and personal experiences over two counts have convinced me the entire PIT exercise should be scrapped. Why does LAHSA rely on unpaid, barely trained, nonexpert volunteers whose sum total experience is the count itself? There are dozens of nonprofits hoovering up hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually and employing thousands full time who, at least in theory, work closely with local homeless populations every day. Where are they?

As Dan Flaming of the Economic Roundtable pointed out years ago, homelessness is dynamic. The very notion of a “point in time count” of homeless people is like a point in time count of electrons. It’s a physical impossibility, for all the reasons outlined here. It’s also next to meaningless in the larger context of the crisis. Instead, the homeless count should be an ongoing exercise, like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. The dynamics change according to the time of year, current events, policy initiatives, and countless other factors. The arrival of fentanyl on the streets fundamentally changed the crisis, as any cop or social worker can attest. I’ve spoken with many cops and sheriffs deputies who remember the specific month and year the drug first appeared in their beats. It was night and day. Similarly, we would have counted even more than 332 people in our square mile of Venice had we done it last year, before L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva brought his HOST program of compassionate clean-ups to the boardwalk.

In any event, the whole purpose of nonprofits like St. Joseph Center (some $180 million in funding since 2013) is to interact with homeless people. To paraphrase Nathan Arizona in the Coen Brothers’ classic Raising Arizona, it’s their whole damn raison d’etre. Hell, their funding is based largely on their annual number of homeless “contacts.” Why is there no process by which the people who work with the homeless everyday are assigned the seemingly basic, task of keeping track of and reporting their own numbers? Why is the single most important data point in the whole mess outsourced to barely trained volunteers?

I suspect the answer is that there’s no money in the count. The Homeless Industrial Complex is a sort of perpetual Potemkin Village: It exists to give the world the impression of action to obscure the underlying rot. An accurate count would above all expose the extent of their failure, and that of the politicians who’ve empowered them.

Because it would expose the most fundamental truth of all: When it comes to L.A.’s homeless crisis, failure is extremely profitable.