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Backlash over report showing big drop in L.A.'s homeless population

November 11, 2009 | 10:45 am

L.A. police on skid row

An L.A. County report showing a 38% drop in the homeless population has been met with consternation by  the region’s homeless providers, who say the findings are inaccurate and could cost them funding at a time when the need is great.

The homeless providers have written op-ed articles, public letters, blog postings and tweets — all taking issue with the census, conducted over three days in January, which showed the number of homeless people in the region had dropped 68,808 in 2007 to 42,694.

The change shown in the report, by the  Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, seems puzzling to some because it comes in the midst of a recession, when people across the region have lost their homes.

“I wouldn’t call it a criticism of the count,” said David Snow, executive director of Upward Bound House, a Santa Monica-based agency that focuses on homeless families and low-income seniors. “I would say there was surprise and shock at the numbers. 

"They seem so contradictory to what we as service providers are seeing from the front lines.” Of particular issue, said several homeless providers, was a part of the survey that said the number of homeless family members was down from 16,000 in 2007 to about 5,000 this year.

“We’ve been describing an overwhelming tsunami of families” seeking services, said Andy Bales, president of Union Rescue Mission. “There’s no way that anybody who works with families would agree with [those numbers]. ... I was expecting a recant of those published numbers by now, but apparently they are going to dig in and hold on to that.”

The census was conducted in January by more than 3,000 volunteers. It was overseen by demographers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Counts were conducted in randomly selected census tracts, which included what the authority considered “hot-spot” and “non-hot-spot” areas. In addition, 16 cities conducted complete counts of all the tracts within their boundaries. In all, homeless people were counted in 754 of the 2,054 census tracts in the county, said Michael Arnold, executive director of the Homeless Services Authority.

In addition, the group did inventories of each shelter in the counted areas, on the same night that volunteers were out on the street, and made more than 28,000 phone calls to track populations that might not be counted in the street count — people living in unconverted garages. Arnold defended the count – noting that, despite the outcry, no one has found problems with the way the count was conducted.

“Really, it’s a very small number of agencies who have raised a cry, and most of them are family providers. ... I think a lot of their hue and cry is anecdotally based, not data based. They are spreading disinformation.” Since the criticism by the homeless providers, Arnold and the demographers have gone back over the numbers, he said.

But in every instance, the numbers track, he said. Arnold said that on the night of the count, family emergency shelters were 91% occupied, and family transitional housing programs were 77% full. Indeed, a drop in the population of homeless people in Los Angeles could make fundraising more difficult for some homeless providers, especially those who rely on public acknowledgment of the homeless problem as a key part of their appeals.

Snow said that donations to his organization have not flagged since the Homeless Services Authority report came out. But, he said, he worried that the report promotes a perception that homelessness has been solved -- and that, in the midst of an already difficult economic climate, “we’ll start seeing a reallocation of already diminished resources.”

-- Cara Mia DiMassa

Photo: Police on L.A.'s skid row. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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