L.A. County flies blind on homeless count – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

When it comes to the homeless crisis, Los Angeles County is now flying blind.

Back in 1993, Pasadena was the third city in America to count its homeless population.  Teams of volunteers fanned out late at night across the entire city with flashlights and clipboards to record the tents, cars, sleeping bags and blankets where those without homes found refuge.

Every year, across L.A. County, volunteers do the same thing.  While technology has radically advanced since 1993, inexplicably, the method for counting homeless people has not. The county has now been granted a waiver from the federal government to skip the 2021 count because of COVID-19.  So we’re stuck with this year’s count, which was conducted pre-pandemic. To know how many homeless people are living on our streets now, we’ll have to wait until at least mid-2022. That’s crazy!

It’s also unnecessary.  L.A. County is required by the federal government to have a Homeless Management Information System.  It’s supposed to record everyone who receives homeless services.  The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) has a Coordinated Entry System that’s supposed to track everyone looking to be housed.  These, however, are not the same.  Nor are they linked with information about homeless people collected by first responders, outreach teams or hospitals.

The reality is that every day, vast amounts of information are collected about the homeless among us.  Police officers, paramedic firefighters, business district ambassadors and emergency room staff constantly interact with people experiencing homelessness. So do bus drivers, park workers and librarians. Outreach teams are deployed across the county to check on people in encampments, parks, city streets and alleys. Churches, public social services and nonprofits provide a myriad of services to homeless people. Citizens call 911 or use LA HOP to report concerns.

All this should be tracked, cross-referenced and mapped.  There’s no excuse for waiting until 2022 for a new count. There’s no technological reason why we can’t estimate the number of people on the streets every month or even every day.  It won’t be exact, but the manual count is also far from exact.  In fact, real time data would be far more accurate — and far more useful.

Beginning three decades ago, police adopted technology to track crime to rapidly deploy resources to prevent it. Crime went down. If we want homelessness to go down, we need to track homelessness to rapidly deploy resources to prevent it. The only efficient way to direct help to the people in need is to know who — and where — they are. Flying blind hampers response, wastes money and leaves too many people out in the cold.

California has embarked on an effort to create a statewide Homeless Data Integration System that will include records from its health, social services and corrections databases. Santa Monica successfully implemented a pilot that lets police, firefighters, outreach teams and social workers share information and communicate in real time. Akido, the start-up vendor that created the app for data integration, is working with LAHSA on similar tools. Yet progress is slow. Time to speed it up!

Homelessness in the county costs taxpayers more than a billion dollars a year. The moral cost is incalculable — and growing. As Joe Colletti, director of Urban Initiatives, notes: “We can’t afford not to accurately track the incidence of homelessness to direct the right resources to the right people in a timely way.” We can’t wait a year and a half for a new count. It’s time to retire the flashlights and clipboards and use modern technology to prevent the homeless crisis from becoming a catastrophe.

Rick Cole was mayor of Pasadena and city manager of Azusa.  He welcomes feedback at venturacole@yahoo.com.



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