(Editor’s note: In February, the Westside Current published an article about a discrepancy in the LAHSA 2020 homeless count. The article, Venice Group’s Data Indicates LAHSA’S Homeless Count May Be Wildly Inaccurate, highlighted a difference between a Venice group’s homeless numbers and those from LAHSA’s 2020 count. After that story, a report released by the RAND Corporation supported the numbers of the Venice group. Angela McGregor picks up the story from there. This story is reprinted in cooperation with the Current.)
BY ANGELA MCGREGOR
A newly released Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) point in time count of L.A.’s homeless population is under scrutiny, again.
In early September, LAHSA released the results of the 2022 Point In Time count of L.A.’s unhoused population, the first it had conducted since 2020. Countywide, the count showed a 4.1% increase. Within the City, the number was up just 1.7% from 2020. LAHSA’s acting co-director, Kristina Dixon, characterized these numbers as evidence of a “flattening of the curve”, compared to the 32% citywide increase between 2019-2020.
On the westside of Los Angeles, however, the curve appeared to have gone over a cliff. LAHSA’S data showed an overall 39% decrease in unhoused persons in CD11.
In Venice Beach, there was a decline from 1685 persons in 2020 to 981 persons two years later.
Within minutes of the release of those numbers, Mike Bonin weighed in with a long Twitter thread commencing with the contention that the massive drop in his district “shows housing and services — not enforcement and criminalization — end homelessness.”
The candidate Bonin endorsed to succeed him, Erin Darling, tweeted a similar summation: “2022 LAHSA homeless count shows LA’s largest decrease in homelessness occurred in District 11. Take a look at this tool to see for yourself. We know what works: prevention and services. Solutions not scapegoating!” He then linked to LAHSA’s data dashboard.
But within hours of its release, others in CD11 had had a chance to analyze the numbers and were less enthused by — or even convinced of the accuracy of — LAHSA’s count.
On September 10, Christopher LeGras, a Venice volunteer for the count (and staff member of CD11 candidate Traci Park’s campaign) wrote on his blog, The All Aspect Report: “We observed 85 individuals (61 adults and 24 youths age 18-24) as well as 30 cars, 29 vans, 16 campers/RVs, 54 tents, and 67 makeshift shelters. LAHSA counts each car, van, tent, and makeshift shelter as one person, while campers and RVs are counted as two. Thus, our total count for our census tract was 297 people.
When LAHSA released the final tally yesterday, it showed our tract as having 77 homeless people.”
The data LAHSA features on their dashboard for that particular stretch along Ocean Front Walk did not include any numbers for how many were living in tents, cars or RVs, or for how many were sheltered or unsheltered — a particularly glaring omission given that the Cadillac Hotel, being used for Project Roomkey, is located along that stretch.
LeGras felt the discrepancy could be because of the new counting app volunteers used this year, called Akido Connect.
“Each time I attempted to submit our data the app simply froze, until it locked up my iPhone completely… For seven months I’ve wondered whether our count ever made it into the system. Yesterday’s results prove they did not.”
LaGras had noted these problems with the app in a previous blog post “I participated in L.A.’s annual homeless count this week. It was a mess.”
LaGras wasn’t the only participant to note problems with the new app. In May, Cal State L.A.’s student publication noted, “As of last week, the app had a two-star rating [out of five] on the app store.
Many volunteers shared their difficulty using it.” They quoted one review and included a screenshot: “I will add mine to the chorus of voices having trouble with the app…Before long, your screen flashes. I’m supposed to use it for the Long Beach count tomorrow, and I don’t know how much use I’ll be.”
Another review called the app “basically unusable on the night of the count.” Akido has since removed the app from both Google Play and the Apple App store.
Akido Labs was created six years ago out of the USC Digital Health Lab and has, over that time, created a number of apps successfully used by social service agencies which integrate various sources of data (in particular, healthcare) in order to provide a more thorough picture of unhoused populations.
Shawn Stern, who is part of the group that was profiled by the Current in February who are still conducting weekly counts of the unhoused in Venice, told us, “While I agree with Mr. LeGras that LAHSA’s methodology and the large discrepancies in the counts are extremely problematic, I have to say that his count… doesn’t comport with our counts of the same area done on a weekly basis for months during this same period. ”
In fact, Stern told us the new LAHSA numbers for Venice were much closer to his group’s than in previous years.
“The 2020 count had 1,901 unsheltered homeless people in Venice…which is a 57% increase over the 2019 count while this 2022 count has 722 unsheltered homeless people in Venice, which is a 50% decrease over the 2020 count. And we all saw the increase in the encampments in our neighborhood in 2020-2021.
“I have always felt that 2020 was a grossly inflated count in Venice, which is why I suggested we go out and talk and COUNT the homeless,” Stern said. “I would argue that the numbers are very likely inflated all over. Is this due to poor methodology, negligence, incompetence or corruption? I don’t know, but from everything we have all seen in our neighborhood these past few years with so many millions spent and so little achieved it certainly seems to be a broken/failed plan.”
Between September 2021 and January 2022, the RAND Corporation conducted its own count of unhoused persons in Venice and tallied 523, a number consistent with that of Stern’s group.
Stern wondered if the massive decrease in Venice’s numbers might be “due to someone at LAHSA looking at the Rand report and finding out that our count corroborated the numbers so LAHSA was forced to lower the inflated numbers their flawed methodology produced? I don’t know.”
The St. Joseph Center, which conducts most of the homeless outreach in Venice, told the Current, “Census tract data from the 2022 Count indicates that a significant proportion (43%) of the reported decline in Venice’s total homeless population is attributable to the area around Ocean Front Walk (which was down 70%). This is where St. Joseph Center led a major Encampment to Homes effort in summer 2021, and where we have continued to coordinate consistent outreach efforts for more than a year.
While homelessness has not been eliminated on Ocean Front Walk, the number of people St. Joseph Center staff have observed living in that area overnight prior to the intervention compared to the year since it occurred is consistent with a notable reduction. ”
Data St. Joseph provided show 213 persons moved off Ocean Front Walk between June 2021 and September 2022, roughly 20% of the overall decrease of 1179 Venice homeless between 2020 and 2022.
The city of Santa Monica conducted its own homelessness count in January and released the results in May 2022. They found 807 people experiencing homelessness, roughly in line with LAHSA’s count of 827, and just 11 percent fewer than their count of 907 in 2020 (LAHSA’s Santa Monica count was 811 for 2020).
The RV-lined corridor between Lincoln Blvd. and Culver Blvd., adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands, has long been a source of grief and anger for nearby residents.
In January 2022, one month before the count was conducted, Spectrum News interviewed Jim Burton, the CEO of Ecokai Environmental Inc., who told them the damage done to the wetlands by the scores of RVs there parked there could result in “years of ecological work…being reversed.” In March 2022, a fire that began at one of the encampments resulted in five acres being burned.
According to LAHSA’s count, 64 persons are living on that stretch of Jefferson (that number was zero in 2020).
But on its data page, LAHSA has no figures on how many are living in RVs, tents, cars or vans. Pie charts alongside the data indicate zero for every category (and running a mouse over those figures reveals weirdly incongruous numbers that appear to have nothing to do with what is being reported).
LAHSA’s data conversion page explains that “The number of people sleeping inside these dwelling types was estimated by surveying the unsheltered population from December 2021 through February 2022” and an average of 1.69 adults live in each RV in SPA 5, the Service Provider Area which includes Playa Vista.
Did LAHSA count 38 RVs along that stretch? Or did their numbers include tents and cars as well? That data is not provided.
The current reached out to LAHSA for clarification, and they have not responded. On Friday, September 23rd, they released a statement to the L.A. Times: “During the Count, we received several reports of user and technological errors resulting from a lack of training and poor internet connectivity. Despite these errors, we are confident in the accuracy of this year’s homeless Count because LAHSA and its partners took several steps to account for what was happening in the field.”
The day after the count was released, Traci Park tweeted a drone video of the Ballona Encampments with the caption: “This video speaks for itself. While Bonin and Darling are taking a “victory” lap, this footage shows the RVs at the tract encompassing Jefferson Blvd & Ballona Wetlands. Sorry, we believe our own eyes. This is not an unsolvable problem; it is a matter of resolve and leadership.”
Third Party Audit
The count’s unreliability has also attracted the attention of the City Council. On September 16, Council President Nury Martinez introduced a motion calling for an evaluation of the effectiveness of LAHSA’s count and a report with options on conducting a third-party point-in-time count.
“While the data is useful in gaining a general understanding of the homeless trends across years, it is unclear whether the current approach is most effective and accurate,” the motion stated.
Councilmember Curren Price said that his office, along with a few other council members’ offices, had trouble accessing data breaking down the sheltered versus unsheltered populations.
“If the city is going to be tasked with solving these problems without serious investment from our neighbors, our neighboring jurisdictions, and the county, then I think we need to start having more control over placements (of unhoused people),” Price said. “I think we have to have that control. And we need an agency that can provide us with the basic data so that we can make those decisions.”