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What Does The New Homeless Number Mean?

Our friend Joel John Roberts, CEO of PATH Partners, pokes at The L.A. Times story today reporting a dramatic drop in L.A.'s homeless population. We thought it was worth re-posting.

I wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times after the official 2005 homeless count in Los Angeles County revealed nearly 90,000 people were homeless. It was called, “The Homeless And the Numbers Game.” I basically wrote that the actual number is not as important as the significance of the problem of homelessness in the region.

Two years later, in 2007, the number magically dropped to about 73,000 people. At the time, I was quoted as saying, “Where did the 17,000 homeless people go, since our region clearly did not build 17,000 housing units for the homeless?”

Today, in 2009, the homeless number is now 48,000 people (for the whole county.) Wow! A 38% drop in homelessness in a region that is still considered the homeless capital of America. How can it be? Is there really less homelessness? Especially, during the worst economy since the depression?

Homeless person

Granted, the city and the county of Los Angeles have been working hard to combat homelessness. But to the point that they housed 17,000 people from 2005 to 2007, and an additional 25,000 found housing from 2007 to 2009?

I’m sure the food banks, shelters, transitional housing, and drop-in centers around the county will laugh at this announcement. Especially since they are seeing an unprecedented demand for services. Even local cities are seeing more of their citizens in fear of being homeless.

But I have to say one thing. After 13 years of leading a homeless agency here in Los Angeles, I actually think the number of homeless in 2009 is accurate. For the past four years, I’ve always thought the number of homeless in Los Angeles County is about 50,000 people.

My concern, however, is not in the number, but in the announcement that homelessness has dramatically decreased. The cities that actually count every homeless person in their jurisdiction (Long Beach, Santa Monica, Pasadena) are not seeing a 38% decrease. The numbers are usually the same or slightly higher.

In order for homelessness to decrease in a region, either one or all of the following need to happen:

1) Homeless people are actually housed.
2) The methodology of counting homelessness is perfected.
3) Homeless people move out of the region.
4) People who are homeless learn how to dodge the homeless count.

Here in Los Angeles, I think all four of the above have occurred. After four years of counting homeless people, Los Angeles finally has an accurate number. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back thinking that we have dramatically reduced homelessness.

There is a lot to be done.

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