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Making Sense of the Homeless Count

The United States measures homelessness in multiple ways. The most significant is the PIT count, where jurisdictions take an annual snapshot of the number and demographics of people experiencing homelessness on a specific winter night (because LA is so large, our PIT count spans three nights). PIT results are used to track year-over-year progress and determine federal funding allocations from HUD. In LA, the number of people experiencing homelessness on a winter night has roughly been going up since 2014 – in part because the crisis is getting bigger and in part because we are getting better at measuring its scale.

LAHSA recently released the latest results from the recent Point in Time (PIT) Count of people experiencing homelessness. The results show a small 4% net increase since 2020, a significant increase in the sheltered proportion of homelessness (12%) and a very slight increase in the unsheltered proportion (1%). Since the last homeless count was completed prior the pandemic, it’s worth unpacking what these results reveal about our collective impact on the crisis, how we compare to other large California jurisdictions, and whether you can trust the PIT count results as a reliable measure of homelessness.

What does this year’s PIT Count reveal?

Every human being represented in the numbers is someone experiencing a housing crisis. That crisis is too common. It is especially too common for Black and African American residents who continue to face relentless systemic racial discrimination in employment and housing markets. Despite progress slowing the rate of increase, there is no cause for celebration until we have ensured homelessness is as rare and brief as possible, especially for our Black and African American neighbors in SPAs 4 and 6, where every measure of homelessness is still moving in the wrong direction. However, insights from the PIT Count highlight markers of systemic improvement and momentum, which we must continue.

Just because you don’t see progress, doesn’t mean there is no progress.

Most Angelenos probably look around and think unsheltered homelessness is growing, and it is growing  – especially in the most populous parts of our County. But it’s not growing everywhere, and the rate of growth has declined from previous periods – which is what happens when you begin to turn a corner. So we cannot give up. The PIT Count shows that while you may see more structures, tents, and encampments in your neighborhood – the number of unsheltered people in those structures has likely leveled off compared to the pre-COVID PIT Count. This is supported by the significant increase in the non-congregate shelter capacity, and a number of thoughtfully-designed encampment-to-home projects in SPA 5, where homelessness went down.

The substantial increase in sheltered homelessness shows what’s possible when the state and federal government put real resources on the table.

The 12% increase in the share of the homeless population that is sheltered signals remarkable progress in the face of overwhelming challenges presented by the pandemic – progress that is only possible with resourced partnerships from the state and federal government. When COVID-19 first emerged, public health experts advised congregate shelters to decompress – reducing shelter occupancy to limit the spread of contagion. In response, the federal government authorized funding for non-congregate shelters, California helped LA launch Project Roomkey, and then followed it up with Project Homekey. This “whole of government” approach, combined with the City of LA’s “Homeless Roadmap” helped increase the non-congregate shelter capacity of our system at a time when shelter trends could have moved in the opposite direction. The passage of the American Rescue Plan and receipt of almost 7,000 Emergency Housing Vouchers is another example of how local, state, and federal partnerships can make substantial impacts on this crisis if we partner on solutions that scale.

The smaller increase in overall homelessness shows that federal, state, and local protections have worked so far– but the worst is yet to come unless we take concrete actions to keep the momentum.

Experts believe that the local, state, and federal eviction protections, rental assistance, student loan and rent freezes, and stimulus checks have all combined to temporarily stabilize so many households who otherwise might have become homeless without those protections. For most households, homelessness is a very rare outcome, and it takes time for people to exhaust all resources and goodwill among family and friends to end up sleeping in a shelter, vehicle, or on the streets. Most experts agree that COVID-related homelessness will not increase significantly until 2023 when those protections no longer exist and inflation has eviscerated household savings. Therefore, we must take note of the escalation we have simply delayed, not avoided, and move swiftly to build more affordable housing and effective prevention strategies at the County level. So what can you do to ensure we are prepared for the challenges ahead?

  • Urge Governor Newsom to sign the recently passed SB 679 to create the LA County Affordable Housing Solutions Agency to protect renters and create more affordable housing across LA County, with dedicated public and private funding at the scale the challenge requires.
  • If you’re a voter in the City of LA, you can fund more affordable housing by voting “yes” on Measure ULA. This measure would tax real estate that sells for more than $5M in LA City and would generate $900 million a year to make housing more affordable and protect low-income seniors from losing their homes.

How does it compare to other California jurisdictions? 

It is challenging to compare homelessness in LA to other continuums of care in California, because the size of our population and crisis is significantly larger. However, in 7 of the 8 large California jurisdictions illustrated below, the count went up between 2020 and 2022, with the largest percentage increases in Alameda County (+20%), Sacramento County (+14%), and San Diego County (+10%). The smallest percentage increases were Los Angeles and Santa Clara Counties (+4% each). The only large county to see a net decrease its PIT Count was San Francisco (-5%).

Does the PIT count accurately measure homelessness in LA?

This year, you may have seen several stories in the LA Times or on CBS Los Angeles which call the accuracy of the count into question, or you may have volunteered for the count and directly experienced glitches in the Akido app used by volunteers to estimate the unsheltered population. Understanding the causes, prevalence, and mitigation of errors is always important, so we want to spend some time unpacking the accuracy of the PIT, and whether you can trust it as an estimate of homelessness.

Q: Is the PIT Count an accurate and comprehensive measure of homelessness?

It’s definitely not comprehensive and it has known flaws, but it’s the most accurate estimate of “literal homelessness” that we have – so it’s imperfect and we must continue improving it.

To understand the accuracy of our local PIT Count, we spoke with Dr. Benjamin Henwood, Professor and Director of the Center for Homelessness, Housing, and Health Equity Research at the University of Southern California. Dr. Henwood and his team provide technical assistance to LAHSA for the annual PIT count, and according to him, the Los Angeles PIT count is an increasingly accurate (albeit imperfect) enumeration of the magnitude of the crisis at a given point in time and the demographics of who is experiencing that crisis. As policy makers use PIT count results to drive decision making and resource allocations, there are a few points worth understanding:

  • It’s an estimate, so the numbers are reliable within a margin of error. Since the PIT count is a full enumeration, it means we are physically counting every person, vehicle, and encampment structure in every census tract over a three-night period. HMIS and administrative data are combined with app-based census counts to generate the numbers of people, vehicles, and structures. From there, stratified random samples are used to generate surveys, which are then leveraged to estimate how many people occupy those vehicles and encampments. Unlike previous years where paper maps were used, the app provides digital breadcrumbs that help experts confirm accuracy and correct obvious errors. All of this results in an increasingly accurate numerical census with known margins of error. So it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have, and it gets better every year.
  • It’s a snapshot, not a denominator. The PIT Count is best interpreted exactly as it is named: a point-in-time. It is best used to compare this year’s snapshot to snapshots from previous years. It is not the totality of everyone who experienced homelessness during the year and should only be used to describe the scale and features of our local crisis during a specific three-night period. It also follows HUD’s definition of homelessness, which does not include people who are precariously housed or couch surfing, so it is generally understood as an undercount of housing instability in any community.
  • You can trust the demographics, until you zoom in. The demographic aspects of the PIT Count (race, gender, age, etc.) are estimated through stratified random sampling. This means we are using a statistically valid sample of the homeless population to infer demographics on the entire homeless population. It works at the CoC and SPA level, but don’t try and infer demographics in your council district, because the closer you zoom in to a specific smaller geography, the less reliable the demographics become.
  • It’s not a comprehensive measure of housing instability. The PIT count estimates literal homelessness, not housing instability. So it excludes people who are doubled up or relying on non-traditional shelters (e.g., churches) for safe refuge. So we know the PIT count is not a comprehensive measure of the housing instability many households are facing, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Q: Why are some people saying this year’s count is inaccurate?

There really were some technical glitches within specific census tracts, but LAHSA has confirmed those glitches were either corrected or the magnitude of errors did not throw off the overall count countywide. According to LAHSA, there were multiple technological and user errors that required data validation, correction, and (in some cases) recounting. Fortunately, the app used geo-location, which left a breadcrumb trail that LAHSA and the data team at USC could follow to investigate and correct. Their methodology was detailed in USC’s annual methodology report, and no amendments were needed to the count. Despite anomalies and plenty of lessons learned, “LAHSA can say with confidence that we secured the data necessary to report an accurate regional estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness on any given night within the LA CoC.”

Q: Is this the only way we measure progress on homelessness?

No, the PIT Count is one of many ways we measure homelessness and track our progress. At the local level, LA County routinely updates the Measure H Impact Dashboard highlighting how many people have moved into interim and permanent housing, and there are numerous rigorous performance evaluations and audits of our progress to date. In September 2022, LAHSA released System Key Performance Indicators to track progress reducing unsheltered homelessness in LA County.

At the federal level, HUD requires the PIT Count and the Annual Homeless Assessment Reports (AHAR), which combines PIT counts with other data about service use patterns and the jurisdiction’s capacity to rehouse people during a 12-month period. In addition to the PIT count results, the AHAR includes measures of our performance on the length of time people experience homelessness in shelters, returns to homelessness over time, and the rate of exits to permanent housing. In addition, the Department of Education measures homelessness among school-age children more broadly than HUD, because DOE includes children and youth who are sharing housing with other persons due to loss of housing or economic hardship.

Key Takeaways from the PIT Count Results

The PIT Count is an imperfect and incomplete measure of the housing crisis facing too many American households, particularly households of color, and the risks of over-relying on it for resource allocation decisions risks perpetuating systemic racism across the nation. However, these annual snapshots are increasingly accurate and instructive when comparing year-over-year trends, and the trends in LA since the pandemic are notable. So far, we have managed to bring more people indoors and into safer options through state and federal support, and we’ve managed to avoid massive net inflows to homelessness through housing protections and income support. But those protections and support are expiring as inflation burns through any modicum of savings households have managed to accrue. So the worst is yet to come in LA unless we double down on affordable housing and tenant protections – tools that can blunt and permanently change the trajectory of this crisis. And we must continue bringing people into safer, viable options while they stabilize their housing.

Important References