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Sun, Apr

Navigating the Storm of Homelessness Numbers: An Analysis of LA's Crisis

LOS ANGELES

iAUDIT! - Given our weather over the past few weeks, I thought an analogy between a storm system and homelessness numbers might be fitting.  Like one rainstorm after another, we’ve been inundated with numbers over the past month or so.  The County recently reported on its progress one year after declaring a homeless emergency. Mayor Bass has been updating the City Council on Inside Safe. Of course, the biggest numbers story is LAHSA’s annual point in time count, completed in late January. 

Just as storms may overlap in El Nino years, homelessness numbers from different agencies overlap.  The City’s numbers are often a subset of the County’s statistics, and both rely on LAHSA for some of the data.  While this may avoid duplication, it also means a mistake or erroneous number from one agency ripples through the entire system. 

Let’s look at the County’s numbers first, since it recently reported a plethora of statistics. On February 14, the L.A. Times ran a story on the results of the County’s emergency declaration for homelessness.  Two key statistics are the number of people permanently housed and those in interim housing or shelters.  According to the County’s Homeless Initiative office, 23,664 people were permanently housed in 2023, an increase of 18 percent from 2022.  Per the article, an additional 37,505 were placed in interim housing or shelters.  The total of these two numbers is 61,169 people, or about 81 percent of the 75,500 people LAHSA estimates to be homeless per its 2023 PIT count. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes homelessness has not been reduced by 81 percent.  In fact, LAHSA said homelessness increased by about nine percent between 2022 and 2023.  So how can we reconcile the 61,169 people supposedly housed or sheltered with another year of more homelessness?  As the article explains, the numbers overlap: theoretically, most of the 37,505 sheltered moved on to become members of the 23,664 who were housed. Whether either number represents actual people is questionable. 

When reading any numbers about homelessness, it is important to keep in mind they often refer to actions rather than people.  In other words, 23,664 and 37,505 represent the number of times the City or County took a housing or shelter action.  As Cheri Todoroff, the Housing Initiative’s Executive Director said, some of those counted as moving into interim housing in 2023 could be counted twice if they also moved into permanent housing the same year. The system isn’t structured to follow an individual through the process, as he or she transitions from a shelter to transitional housing to a permanent home; it just counts the number of times the City, County, or a nonprofit employee ticks a box to record an action.  As a December 14, 2023 LAist article explains, a single person may be counted as many as three times during the housing process.  Complicating the numbers, LAHSA has shown a demonstrable inability to keep track of people who leave its facilities,  The February 14 L.A. Times article stated, “County officials did not disclose the number of people who exited interim or permanent housing during Tuesday’s presentation”.  Not knowing when someone exits shelter/housing has repercussions throughout the system, such as the City paying for vacant Inside Safe rooms. A person may leave a shelter in one location and enter a different one elsewhere, being counted twice in the process.  People lost to the streets do not receive the services they need to stay housed. 

Simply stated, the numbers reported by the County have no value as performance measures. At best, they are an indication of the number of actions taken by various agencies as each completes its assigned siloed process; accepting someone into a shelter, placing them in interim housing, permanently housing them, etc.  At any point in the process, a person can exit and reenter the system, and be counted again.  Nobody really knows how many people have been successfully housed, despite the billions spent on homeless interventions.

In all fairness, there was some good news in the County’s report.  It has made progress on reducing the recruitment time for needed staff.  Per the Times article, “The county Department of Mental Health reduced its hiring time from about 304 days to 53 days, the county said. This included hiring for its homeless outreach teams that visit unhoused people with serious mental illnesses”.  Speeding the hiring process has allowed the County to add staff to its field outreach programs.  However, the article didn’t say anything about turnover or total staffing levels, so we don’t know how close the County has come to fully staffing its homelessness programs, nor what the impact of additional staffing has been.  Since the County uses almost no performance measures, it is highly unlikely we will ever know the impact of improved staffing. 

The City’s Inside Safe program suffers from the same lack of reliable and meaningful numbers.  According to LAist’s tracking report, as of December 2023, “21,694 people have moved into temporary housing like Inside Safe and tiny homes. Her [Mayor Bass’] office also said 7,717 people were housed through vouchers and 3,551 people were housed in new permanent units since she took office in December 2022. 

Because a person may be counted more than once across categories — for example, if someone moved into temporary housing and then received a voucher to move into permanent housing, they would be counted twice — these numbers can’t be added together to get a total number of people housed. This means we don’t yet have a full picture of how many people have been housed in total.  Anyone who left temporary or permanent housing and returned to living on the streets has not been subtracted from these numbers.” Again, we see a system hobbled by inaccurate numbers, and missing or double-counted people.  For all the positive publicity from the Mayor’s office, only about 255 people have been permanently housed, after an expenditure of almost $94 million in Inside Safe funding. That’s $368,630 per person housed, a number one hopes will decrease as more people attain permanent housing. According to LAist, Inside Safe sheltered 1,955 people by the end of November 2023, but 337 (1.3 times more than who were housed), fell back into homelessness. 

Even the paltry number of 255 people permanently housed is questionable. The County devotes almost no effort to providing consistent services to people in permanent supportive housing, so many slip back into homelessness. Because state and local governments embrace the No Barrier Housing First model, people recovering from substance abuse are often housed with active abusers. Exposing a recovering addict to neighbors who are abusing drugs is not conducive to preventing falling back into addiction. Housing First has yet to show it benefits unhoused people in the long-term.  According to an April 2021 report in Medical Care, the journal of the American Public Health Association, a study followed 73 chronically homeless people (the population Housing First targets), over a period of several years, and “found that housing retention was 82 percent after one year, but fell dramatically to 36 percent after five years, and to just 12 percent after 10 years. Long-term outcomes for this permanent supportive housing program for chronically unsheltered individuals showed low housing retention and poor survival.” Shockingly, the journal stated, “Nearly half of the cohort (45%) died while housed [my italics]. The co-occurrence of medical, psychiatric, and substance use disorder, or “tri-morbidity,” was common”.  I can find no reference to such a long-term study in Los Angeles, so any claims by our local officials of permanent housing’s success must be tempered by the reality that there are few supportive services for those in housing, and neither the County, City, nor LAHSA have done persistency studies to see how long people stay housed beyond a few years. 

Finally, there is the most important set of numbers, LAHSA’s annual point in time count. It is most important because it is used to set the priorities for other City and County programs.  Service provider contracts are based on the number of unhoused people in each service area. The supposed reductions in homeless populations attributed to Housing First are based on the PIT count. Because of its bedrock importance, one would think the PIT count is conducted with scientific rigor. Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The 2022 PIT count was such a farce that LA’s City Council demanded changes. Wild unexplained fluctuations in counts in the same are from the previous count, and between adjacent service areas, undermined LAHSA’s claim it limited the increase in homelessness to “only” four percent.  LAHSA’s Board—made up of City and County officials—promised major changes to the 2023 and 2024 counts.  After the 2023 count recorded a nine percent increase in homelessness, (with increases of more than 40 percent in some areas), LAHSA purchased new software for its volunteer counters.  Unfortunately, the 2024 count appears to have made no improvements over its faulty predecessors.  As Christopher LeGras, who has been a volunteer counter four times, explains here, the recent PIT count was deeply flawed.  Counters were told not to visit encampments along the LA River, in state parks and open spaces, and at beaches, even though these locations are known for large unhoused populations.  Once again, counters had trouble uploading data from their phones to the new counting software system.  

In a rare attempt to be proactive, the County Board of Supervisors ordered a review of the 2024 count and its processes. Although LAHSA officials claim they can go back and correct any missing data, the count has so little credibility after years of inaccuracy, any numbers it produces are suspect. For perspective, when the County of Orange cleared a large encampment along the Santa Ana River in 2018, it relocated 700 people and removed thousands of pounds of human waste and almost 14,000 hypodermic needles.  Take those numbers and project them for the length of the Los Angeles River as it winds it way through the County. Because of the assumptions and flaws in LAHSA’s count, LeGras estimates the count may catch only about a third of the real homeless population; instead of 46,000 unhoused people in the City of Los Angeles, there could be 140,000, and instead of 75,500 county-wide, the number could exceed 225,000. 

Such inaccuracy illustrates just how inadequate City and County efforts are.  Local government has not made the slightest dent in the official count of 75,500.  Imagine how much an unhoused population of nearly a quarter million magnifies the crisis.  Pumping out numbers that have no basis in fact, and that do not measure program performance is worse than useless—it is fundamentally dishonest and gives elected officials and the public a false sense of accomplishment, when the plain evidence of failure can be found under freeway overpasses, on vacant lots, and in derelict RV’s all over the County. 

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process. Tim is a regular contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)