The Complex Numbers of Los Angeles

Posted on 07/06/17 by Pamela Chan

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The most recent numbers for the homeless population of Los Angeles County are in and as of May 2017, they have grown 23% to nearly 58,000 individuals—57,794 to be exact. These numbers continue to rise sharply despite increasing efforts to place people in housing and combat a decades-long homeless crisis.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn called the results “staggering,” and cited the need to “stem the overwhelming tide of people falling into homelessness” as key to ending the ongoing dilemma.

The crisis of modern American homelessness began during the 1980s, a chaotic period of recessions, deinstitutionalized mental healthcare, and administrative cuts that weakened the national safety net. A persistent issue since then, it has been complicated by the difficulty of defining and measuring homelessness, which can range from individuals living in the streets, vehicles, or parks, to those receiving minimal aid from citywide initiatives like rent subsidies, new construction, as well as outreach and support services. The result? A combination of sheltered and unsheltered individuals that, nationwide, are extremely difficult to count accurately. Indeed, this ongoing problem has prompted a massive drive for improved and dependable data collection efforts in order to fully measure the extent of homelessness.

An array of government-sponsored efforts to obtain accurate numbers have come and gone, including various approaches such as indirect estimation, single-contact censuses, and capture-recapture studies. Each method, while offering some benefits, suffers from certain technical inadequacies due to lack of organization and uniformity. Alternatives using Homeless Management Information Systems, Point-in-Time counts, and Housing Inventory Counts have also been employed, all aiming to further inform policymakers and advocates on demographics, trends, and the availability and usage of services among America’s homeless population.

Los Angeles County participates in one of these ‘counts’ in the annual tally up. An exhaustive three-day event which sees thousands of volunteers head out into onto the streets to try to tally up the exact number of homeless people within the surrounding area. The Guardian has deemed similarly tiring national counts as a “crucial mechanism to keep track of people who often exist outside of government bureaucracy. They serve to provide a window into the homeless landscape as well as a sense of how it has changed over time.” Almost 8,000 volunteers were recruited for this year’s street-by-street sweep and the continuation of such carefully conducted data-collection efforts persists here in Southern California, as well as in other states. Still, the soaring numbers clearly do not lie meaning that the issue may very well be in how the data is currently gathered.

One significant issue? Correctly counting homeless individuals is an entirely problematic issue unto itself. The existence of a sizable homeless population is beyond doubt and yet its ever-changing and fluid nature continues to present methodological challenges in obtaining an accurate measure of its size. Homeless population counts are extremely complicated due to the mobility of the population, the cyclical nature of homelessness for many individuals, and the lack of a clear definition of homelessness in general. Final figures from various data collection efforts are typically questionable and usually far from accurate. Moreover, the homeless authority has refined its collection methodology over the years and expanded its volunteer base, causing year-over-year comparisons to be further misleading.

Yet, many believe that measuring the extent of homelessness is essential to combating it. Complementary data collection efforts have helped policymakers confront homelessness more efficiently, and if used correctly can continue to do so right alongside other resources and initiatives. Embracing the innovative role data plays in creating social change locally will ultimately offer a more in-depth analysis of homelessness and enable policymakers to target resources towards more effective assistance.

In order to advance research in this area of study and create actual change that benefits L.A. County’s most vulnerable communities, several key things must be accomplished:

Clear, universally accepted definitions of homelessness More comparative research to determine better methodologies for studying difficult to find or difficult to enumerate populations. Careful consideration of inherent biases. Developmental work, such as the creation of specific local systems flexible enough to accommodate varying local circumstances yet dependably consistent in aggregating local data so as to reveal a holistic picture at the national level.

Even with improved methodological approaches, a valid national estimate of the total number of homeless people may not prove to be eminently practical. Yet, if studies can be carried out in cities and communities across the country using more precise definitions and more clearly defined methods, there is hope that a better, more informed composite picture can be constructed. That sharper picture would benefit many.

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