We’ve been suffering through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression over the past year, leading many of us to assume that social conditions have been worsening. Poverty and unemployment, and foreclosures have clearly been on the rise, and certainly we’ve expected that homelessness – the most extreme expression of poverty and insecurity – has been increasing as well.
Well, according to the 2009 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count – released today – it hasn’t. The 2009 figure – 48,053 persons homeless in Los Angeles County every night – represents a 38% decline from the 2007 count. This is actually part of a trend over the past four years, as shown in the following chart:
When the 2007 numbers came out lower than 2005, a common justification was that the count became more precise as the methodology improved, implying that the earlier count wasn’t as accurate. Having been briefed on this year’s methodology, I agree that the 2009 count is the most reliable we’ve had yet. But, it still begs the question of whether we’re really seeing declines. As one news article characterizes it, “whether the drop was real or the by-product of fuzzy math in previous years, is hard to say.”
Leaders in Los Angeles are trying to frame the results in the positive, claiming that the decline is the result of increased public and private efforts to house the homeless. As Michael Arnold, Executive Director of LAHSA, stated in reaction to the numbers, “We know, we can sense, we can feel that there’s a change out there. These numbers provide us with some documentation, that things are really happening in Los Angeles.”
As I’ve written about before, there has been real, quiet progress in addressing homelessness in Los Angeles. That work is to be applauded. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that we still have tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles who will sleep on the streets today. We still have plenty of work to do.
One thought on “New Homeless Numbers for L.A. What did we expect?”
LAHSA’s comments interpreting their report go far beyond the data they present.
The only way to compare point in time estimates from one time to another is to use the same methodology each time. It is not clear from LAHSA’s reports how their methodology has changed, as Bill reports that it has. In addition, when one is counting “visibly homeless” people, as LAHSA did, one has to assume that the proportion of “visible” homeless people does not change. As many people who work at the ground level know, increased police pressure in many areas has caused homeless people to seek out locations where they are less likely to be seen.
LASHSA’s data are also inconsistent with other information, including recent administrative data from the General Relief program, from which the County says that about 50,000 of the 83,000 on General Relief are homeless. And previous studies have consistently found that only a fraction of homeless people are receiving General Relief.
LAHSA credits the change in numbers counted to economic and policy changes, which may or may not be the case. LAHSA makes claims about, for example, the contributions of increases in permanent supportive housing and extremely low income housing to the reduced estimates. But there are much more direct ways for LASHA to determine, and tell the public, what those numbers are. It is much easier to count housing units than homeless people.
By any acceptable methodology, which LAHSA’s may turn out to be after a full vetting, the key point is the one made by Bill Pitkin: The number of unsheltered and unhoused people in Los Angeles is still extremely large by the standards of any other community in the U.S. It is a little early for self-congratulation.