A July 5 Los Angeles Times article, “Progress on homeless is hard to tally,” presents a difference of opinion on how to count the homeless. All cities in the United States count homeless in shelters and on the streets. Unlike most other cities, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) also conducts a telephone survey to tally “hidden homeless” and adds them to its count. Federal officials would prefer LAHSA not include the hidden homeless, which would generate a lower homeless count total.
This debate over how to count does not address a much more important question: what can we learn from LA County homeless counts about how to decrease homelessness?
There was little change in street and shelter homelessness in LA County between the two counts in January 2011 and January 2013 – 39,414 compared to 39,463, an infinitesimal increase. Why didn’t we see a significant increase in homelessness considering the Great Recession’s contribution to the drivers of homelessness: poverty and unemployment? The reasons are multifaceted, but this is due primarily to a large infusion of federal Recovery Act funding from 2009-2012 that was well-focused on rapidly rehousing thousands of homeless individuals and families. Second, Congress increased funding to house homeless veterans. Finally, hundreds of permanent, supportive housing units at affordable rents were developed for people experiencing long-term homelessness and with disabilities–people who we most often see on the street and identify as homeless.
Unfortunately, many of the funding resources that made the reduction between 2011 and 2013 possible are no longer available. LA County’s Street and Shelter data are consistent with national findings that rapid rehousing and permanent, supportive housing work to end homelessness. Now we need a long-term commitment with adequate funding, political leadership, and smart implementation to make more progress. Rather than debating homeless count methodologies, federal and local governments should devote the resources we need to these proven strategies and end homelessness in Los Angeles.