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Count of homeless people in L.A. County to begin Tuesday night

January 25, 2011 |  4:35 pm

Hundreds of volunteers will be fanning out this week to count the homeless in Los Angeles city and county.

The census, which begins Tuesday night, is conducted every two years and will take three days to complete. 

“If we’re really serious about ending homelessness, we have to know what the problem is and how big it is,” said Calvin J. Fortenberry, spokesman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which organizes the count.

Similar counts are taking place this week across the country.  To qualify for federal funding to assist the homeless, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department requires communities to count their homeless populations on a given day every two years.  Federal housing officials define the homeless as people living in emergency shelters and transitional housing, or in places not fit for human habitation such as sidewalks, cars, parks and abandoned buildings.

The L.A. city-county count, which covers about 4,000 square miles, is the nation’s largest.  It begins Tuesday in the San Gabriel Valley and East Los Angeles, then moves to West Los Angeles and the South Bay Cities on Wednesday, and finishes Thursday in the Antelope Valley, San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley, the Los Angeles metropolitan area and South Los Angeles.

The 2009 census identified nearly 43,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, excluding the cities of Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach, which conduct their own counts.  When the results were added from those cities, it was found that more than 48,000 people were homeless on any given night in the county.

That was a 38% drop from 2007, a result met with skepticism among homeless service providers who said they were seeing more people -- particularly families -- because of the recession.

Advocates for the homeless will be watching to see whether the numbers have risen since then, especially as the economic downturn started worsening only a few months before the last count was conducted.

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Michael Arnold said the city and county have been investing in housing and other programs to get people off the streets, which could help account for the drop measured two years ago.

Methodological improvements have also helped the city-county authority “get closer to a true number,” he said. In 2005, the count was based on results taken from about 20% of the total area. This year, Arnold expects to cover about 50%.

Nearly 4,000 volunteers have indicated that they would take part and more are welcome.

“It’s really a positive experience to see so many people from different parts of the community coming together on such an important issue,” Arnold said in a statement. “The count is just the first step in my eyes to getting to the real goal of moving people into permanent housing.”

A more detailed survey is planned in February to collect information on gender, ethnicity, the chronically homeless, veterans, homeless families, unaccompanied youth, people living with HIV or mental illness,  substance abuse and victims of domestic violence.

Pasadena and Glendale will be conducting their counts on Wednesday and Long Beach will follow on Thursday.


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-- Alexandra Zavis

Photo: Stephen Boswell, 59, left, and Bobby Gutierrez, 45, secure their tents against high winds blowing ashore as the sun sets in Long Beach late last month. The pair have lived along the Los Angeles River for two years. A count of homeless in Long Beach is scheduled to begin Thursday. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times