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Tue, Jun

LASHA’s PIT Count and the Theatre of the Absurd

VOICES

MY AUDIT - When I was a teenager in the 1970’s I never missed an episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the British TV show that made the troupe world famous.  The group’s skits, from The Ministry of Silly Walks to Hairdressers on Mount Everest, were the ultimate expression of absurdist comedy, with story lines so surrealistic, viewers could not help but laugh.  If absurdist theatre has a dark side, it would be LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) and its ridiculous attempts to estimate the homeless population through its annual Point in Time (PIT) counts.

The latest PIT count claims there has been a nine percent increase in LA County’s unhoused population, from 69,000 to 75,000. Homelessness in the City of LA increased 10 percent from 41,000 to 46,000. In some service areas on the City’s west side and harbor area, homelessness has increased as much 45 percent. This news follows the 2022 PIT count, which claimed a more modest four percent county-wide increase, and a decrease on the Westside. Public officials, from Mayor Garcetti to LAHSA’s CEO to then-Councilmember Mike Bonin trumpeted the “success” of Housing First policies in the reduction of the Westside’s homeless population.  Except the count was farcically inaccurate.  It didn’t take long for the media, elected officials and community advocates to question the count’s jumbled numbers. News outlets sent TV reporters to established encampments where LAHSA said no unhoused people were found. A volunteer counter said he couldn’t upload numbers to LAHSA’s system.  LAHSA told field counters to make assumptions about the number of people in tents and RV’s with no basis in fact.  A follow-up professional count by the RAND corporation found significant increases in some areas where LAHSA claimed decreases. Anyone who’s had an undergraduate course in statistics or survey analysis could point to obvious anomalies like wild fluctuations in numbers among the service areas, and steep inexplicable increases or decreases from the previous count.

The criticism became so severe LAHSA’s then-CEO was forced to claim the count was just a “regional estimate” and wasn’t meant to reflect actual unhoused populations in specific areas. Her statements refuted the agency’s previous claims to “success” on the Westside.  Indeed, they conflicted with LAHSA’s policy of writing many service contracts based on the homeless population in a given Service Planning Area (SPA).

Due to the criticism of its 2022 count, LAHSA adopted more robust methods for the 2023 count, including improved reporting software and review by professional statisticians. However, as in past years, it primarily relied on a cadre of volunteer counters with minimal training for the actual count—a count that largely determines where the agency will spend its $800 million budget.

Now we are being told homelessness has jumped by more than nine percent in LA County.  The problem, of course, is that we have no reliable way to compare last year’s numbers to 2023’s. A nine percent increase over a number that has no grounding in reality means nothing. Most likely, the number of unhoused increased more than four percent last year, and we may simply be seeing a more accurate count this year.  We have reason to doubt the accuracy of this year’s count.  For years, many people who work with the unhoused have claimed LAHSA chronically underestimates the number of unsheltered homeless, perhaps by as much as half. And of course, there are the lived experiences of the City’s residents, who encounter encampments that seem to grow and proliferate by the day.

Many professional survey experts criticize LAHSA’s basic methodology, which hasn’t changed in 15 years, as described by the LA Times in January.  An army of about 7,000 volunteers fan out over the County for three days to complete the PIT count.  The count is often performed from cars, with little opportunity to linger in one spot to ensure everyone was counted.  By necessity, counters make assumptions about the number of people in RV’s and tents. Since the survey is done over three days, factors like weather can affect the count; more people will go into shelters when it’s raining, as it was in January when the latest count was done.  The one glaring flaw in LAHSA’s methodology is its reliance on self-reporting as to the cause and effects of homelessness.  Allowing people to self-report, especially on their own negative behaviors, is notoriously inaccurate, and it is the main reason LAHSA’s numbers on substance abuse and mental illness track lower than other more professional surveys. Experts agree the best way to do the count would be using a relatively small number of professional survey specialists, and to do the count longitudinally, that is, over a period of months, to correct for seasonal or other variations, and to ask very specific questions to identify causative factors.

What takes LAHSA into the realm of the absurd is the way it uses and interprets the survey’s results.  As I mentioned, last year’s results were proof of its programs’ success—until they weren’t. Then it became a “regional estimate” but was still used for local program priorities.  What you will never see in all the rhetoric is even a hint of introspection, asking if the programs themselves are simply not working.  Rather than admitting that the No Barrier Housing First policy LA pursues might be flawed, LAHSA’s CEO tried to deflect her agency’s failures to the traditional bugaboo of housing:

“In struggling to explain the continued growth of homelessness, Adams Kellum acknowledged that the reasons are not fully known, but she pointed to economics as the underlying cause. She cited a recent study by UC San Francisco, finding that among people who had leases before becoming homeless, a decrease in income was the most common reason for losing their housing”. (The study cited by Dr. Adams Kellum was written by a well-known Housing First advocate in academia. The report’s narrative actually conflicts with the numbers from its own surveys, and has veracity issues of its own).

Her statement about income loss and housing is the logical equivalent of saying someone drowned because they were in the water, with no explanation of how they fell in.  Dr. Adams Kellum is an educated person and should understand the concept of causation: a decrease in income may result in losing one’s home, but what caused the loss of income? Could it be the virulent spread of fentanyl and methamphetamine, which No Barrier Housing First ignores? Could it be that 79 percent of the unhoused have criminal records, as reported by the UCSF survey?  Could it be untreated mental illness, which leaves disturbed people to fend for themselves in the name of “personal agency”? Did Dr. Adams Kellum or anyone in LAHSA or the City ask if the fanatical insistence that only housing can solve this crisis might be wrong, despite the fact many of the unhoused would get more benefit from transitional housing, rent subsidies, or of many other less expensive interventions?  Did they ask if they need to address the documented instances of LAHSA employees and contractors simply ignoring their duty in an environment where accountability is unknown and initiative punished?  The short answer is no, because for Adams Kellum or anyone in the homelessness industry to admit Housing First doesn’t work is to admit that the billions of dollars spent on construction have failed to put even a slight dent in homelessness.  It is much easier to adopt the absurdist argument that each failure is actually more proof we need to pump even more money into housing construction.  It’s the same flipped argument MAGA Republicans use every time a “fake election” case is thrown out of court; failure is just more proof the “system” is rigged against them.  In this case, it’s not LAHSA’s fault its failed count is a laughingstock; it’s really the economy/housing costs/low wages/NIMBY’s/ [insert excuse here].

In a well-known Monty Python skit, a man comes into a pet store with a clearly dead parrot he just purchased.  The parrot is so dead, the shop owner nailed its feet to the perch.  What ensues is a five-minute conversation between the customer and the owner, who does everything he can to deny the parrot is as dead as a doorknob.  Each denial is more absurd than the one before. The parrot is resting.  The parrot is “pining for the jungle”.  The parrot is anything but dead. The skit finally ends in typical Monty Python fashion with a sudden segue to a completely unrelated scene.  LAHSA operates in much the same way; every time one of its manifold failures is exposed, it offers ever more absurd excuses: “The count isn’t location-specific, it’s a regional estimate. “It’s not our fault more people are homeless than ever before, and more of them are unsheltered.  It’s the cost and scarcity of housing”. “Untreated substance abuse and mental illness can’t possibly be causes of homelessness, because housing wouldn’t help them”. Then the spokesperson changes the narrative to discuss things like “community opposition”, which is nice way of saying NIMBY-ism. LAHSA’s absurdism would be comical if it weren’t for the fact its failures are one of the reasons six people die on LA’s streets every night.

(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.)

 

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