A street cen­sus, tract by tract

Vol­un­teers comb the county for a more ac­cu­rate tally of its home­less res­i­dents

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - DOUG SMITH doug.smith@la­times.com

To more ac­cu­rately count the home­less, 5,500 vol­un­teers vis­ually sur­veyed 80% of L.A. County.

It was a balmy night in Jan­uary when the team of four young pro­fes­sion­als struck out from South El Monte City Hall to walk the dark streets of un­fa­mil­iar neigh­bor­hoods. Their mis­sion was to can­vass three cen­sus tracts in the mid-San Gabriel Val­ley in search of the home­less.

The first was a pre­dom­i­nantly Latino tract of former horse prop­er­ties now yield­ing to Asian man­sions.

Dogs, chick­ens and even the scent of a holdover horse or two were ev­i­dent. But the home­less were not un­til, at the in­ter­sec­tion of a thor­ough­fare, the can­vassers came upon an old white van.

They stopped, waited, lis­tened, un­til the faintest sound of life em­anated. They made a hash mark on a form in­di­cat­ing one van. Then a few streets away they found an oc­cu­pied car and marked it too.

Their next tract took them to an un­der­pass of the 605 Free­way be­side an open field, a strange and slightly fright­en­ing place at night. They clam­bered down the con­crete em­bank­ment into the cav­ern un­der the free­way. They heard a cough and saw the shadow of a lean-to: a shel­ter.

The four were vol­un­teers on the first night of the 2015 home­less count con­ducted by the Los An­ge­les Home­less Ser­vices Au­thor­ity. The joint city-county agency formed to man­age home­less ser­vices had promised to dis­patch 5,500 vol­un­teers to do what had never been done be­fore — vis­ually sur­vey more than 80% of the county to tally the home­less.

The sur­vey re­sults — re­leased for the first time this year with the ac­tual counts in each cen­sus tract — show that the home­less are al­most ev­ery­where in L.A. County.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the high­est con­cen­tra­tion fell in the five down­town cen­sus tracts, in­clud­ing skid row. Venice came next, fol­lowed by Santa Mon­ica and Hol­ly­wood and smaller clus­ters in Lan­caster, South Los An­ge­les and Pomona.

Ve­hi­cles fol­lowed a dif­fer­ent pat­tern, ap­pear­ing promi­nently in South Los An­ge­les, the An­te­lope Val­ley and Westchester.

En­camp­ments of tents and makeshift shel­ters showed up around the 110 Free­way both north and south of down­town and also along the South Bay por­tion of the 405.

No home­less were sighted in about 300 tracts, small ar­eas of 4,000 to 6,000 peo­ple. But 165 tracts had 10 or more ve­hi­cles; 74 tracts had 10 or more tents or shel­ters.

Previous sur­veys go­ing back a quar­ter-cen­tury had failed to cap­ture the dif­fused and hid­den home­less.

In one of those ef­forts, an­nounced with great fan­fare, the Cen­sus Bu­reau at­tempted to enu­mer­ate the home­less for the 1990 cen­sus. But that his­toric “count” hardly got be­yond the streets of skid row. The enu­mer­a­tors never showed up in places such as Glen­dale’s Brand Boule­vard, where ev­ery store­front was a sleep­ing den for a home­less per­son.

In re­sponse to crit­i­cism from home­less ad­vo­cates who called the count dras­ti­cally low, the Cen­sus Bu­reau spent hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars on home­less “am­bas­sadors” lead­ing up to the 2000 cen­sus in hopes of do­ing a more cred­i­ble count. But, con­clud­ing it couldn’t over­come the ob­sta­cles to count­ing the home­less, the bu­reau abruptly dropped the plan, pro­vok­ing another out­cry.

In 2005, LAHSA launched its home­less count with a force of vol­un­teers who combed over about 510 cen­sus tracts, barely a quar­ter of the 1,887 in its ter­ri­tory (ex­clud­ing Glen­dale, Pasadena and Long Beach, which con­duct their own counts).

To de­rive a to­tal, the agency con­tracted with a re­search lab­o­ra­tory to sta­tis­ti­cally ex­trap­o­late for the three-quar­ters of un­counted tracts.

Ev­ery two years since then, LAHSA has ex­panded its reach. In 2013 vol­un­teers counted 1,371 tracts. That al­lowed a more ac­cu­rate es­ti­mate of the to­tal home­less pop­u­la­tion. But car­to­graph­i­cally speak­ing, it still made for a Swiss-cheese pic­ture.

With 1,684 tracts on its itin­er­ary this year, LAHSA may have hit the sweet spot, enough to make a nearly seam­less map.

And the vol­un­teers did come through. Over two nights and a day, they as­sem­bled at more than 100 de­ploy­ment sites in churches, city build­ings, so­cial ser­vice cen­ters and sober­liv­ing homes from San Pe­dro to Lan­caster. Col­lege room­mates, re­tirees, men in their work­day suits, moth­ers and daugh­ters, fa­thers and sons, whole fam­i­lies showed up all yearn­ing to do some­thing for the home­less, even if that was noth­ing more than count­ing.

Form­ing im­promptu teams, clip­boards in hand, they ven­tured into the night. Hours later they trick­led back, some flush with ac­com­plish­ment. Oth­ers showed pangs of de­feat — they had found no home­less, but they had done their job.

Af­ter tab­u­lat­ing the tract counts, ad­just­ing for ve­hi­cles and en­camp­ments, ex­trap­o­lat­ing num­bers for the un­counted tracts and adding in shel­ters and counts from the three other cities, LAHSA came up with an L.A. County home­less pop­u­la­tion of 44,359, a num­ber that de­spite its ap­par­ent pre­ci­sion has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or mi­nus 760.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.