LA community concludes homeless count

The count will reveal where homelessness appears most prevalent in Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles’ unhoused population is particularly challenging to quantify, as a great majority of people live outside and not in shelters. (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority finished conducting the 2024 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count Jan. 31 as part of an effort to estimate the number of unhoused individuals in L.A. 

The count, which was conducted over three days in late January, utilized groups of volunteers to tally the total number of people, tents and makeshift shelters in L.A. Another volunteer group conducted qualitative surveys, asking unhoused respondents about their living situation. 

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This data helped researchers approximate the average number of unhoused residents within each observed dwelling. Together, these surveys will estimate the total number of unhoused residents throughout the county. 

Svannah Marshall, a senior majoring in political science and a research team lead with the count, said the estimation of unhoused individuals is “pretty accurate,” but there is work to be done to improve the methodology. Marshall said that certain teams lacked Spanish-speaking workers, who could have helped survey those who don’t speak English. 

“You don’t want to miss people just because of a language barrier,” Marshall said. “That’s not fair to their story.”

Similar counts are conducted across the United States as part of a federal requirement for counties requesting homeless services funding. In most cities, the count is conducted on a single night in January. 

In L.A., however, counting the homeless population is a three day process. A great majority of the city’s unhoused individuals live outside instead of in homeless shelters, making this population difficult to quantify. The 2023 count estimated that there were 71,320 unhoused individuals in L.A. County. 

“L.A. is really the largest unsheltered count for sure,” said Ben Henwood, a professor of social policy and health at USC and the methodological lead for the count. “The majority of people, almost three-quarters, are unsheltered.” 

Researchers from the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and LAHSA collaborated on the methodology and implementation of the count. While the count is an imprecise measurement, LAHSA implemented new data collection methods to get the best possible results. 

Still, Henwood said these numbers fail to paint a full picture of the issue. While the homeless count provides metrics for where services are most needed, it cannot tell us why certain areas see fluctuations in homelessness. 

“The homeless count doesn’t really tell you the whole story, and if that’s all you’re focused on, you’re only getting a partial view of the problem,” Henwood said.

Survey questions also asked unhoused respondents about their health as well as the causes and effects of their homelessness. Volunteers were also instructed to ask respondents personal questions about their HIV status, relationships and drug use. Marshall said although researchers give a warning before asking, such questions could be triggering for respondents. 

Elvis Reyes, who is experiencing homelessness in South Central, said that unhoused people often feel uncomfortable answering questions about their situation. 

“Most people will be like, ‘Who are you to come over here and ask me questions?’” Reyes said. “They’ll think they’re cops.” 

While volunteers conducted the majority of the count, members of the L.A. Police Department and LAHSA representatives tackled high-risk areas that might have posed a danger to volunteers. Marshall said unhoused respondents who have experienced police sweeps in the past were less willing to participate in the count. 

“If they interpret us as being with the government, or maybe being with the police, even though that’s not true, then they’ll hide from us,” Marshall said. 

In conjunction with the homeless count, LAHSA also conducts the youth count. This count, conducted through surveys, aims to estimate the number of unhoused minors in L.A. Henwood said unhoused youth are a small and elusive group. The 2023 count estimated 2,151 unsheltered youths in the L.A. Continuum of Care, but Henwood said this demographic has a higher margin of error.

“We know the youth numbers went down after the pandemic,” Henwood said. “We don’t know whether there’s fewer homeless youth or [if] they are not being picked up the way they used to when we [did] the youth count [in previous years].”

LAHSA will release the results of the 2024 homeless count on its website this summer. 

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