The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications

The LA Times’s story “County’s homeless population difficult to quantify” tells us that there are 54,000 homeless people in L.A.—or are there? Apparently “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says it lost confidence in the survey methodology” used by our friends LAHSA—the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority—and consequently HUD knocked 18,000 homeless people out of L.A. county. So there are 54,000 homeless in L.A. County, or 36,000, or any other number you care to make up.

It’s almost impossible to accurately define the number of homeless because the definition of homelessness is itself fluid. Does one night on the streets count? Does two? A week? What if someone has a home but runs away for a period of time. For grant writing purposes, homeless counts are a facet of issues we’ve described before, in posts about finding and using phantom data and the difficulty of performing a significant evaluation. Fortunately, funders are like journalists in that they often care less about the epistemological and statistical questions meaning of the number than they care about having a number.

Despite the debate, the numbers may not actually matter: the reporter, Gale Holland, doesn’t mention this, but HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds—otherwise known as “Continuum of Care” grants—allocates money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas. Consequently, the estimated number of homeless derived from the annual homeless count required by HUD isn’t real important.

HUD also requires that urban cities, counties and states draft “Continuum of Care Plans,” or something similar, to end homelessness as part of the Consolidated Plan process. We know because we read and analyze Continuum of Care and Consolidated Plans whenever we write a HUD proposal, which is pretty often. We’ve been reading these plans for 20 years and they all say more or less the same thing. No Consolidated Plan says, “Our goal is to increase homelessness.”

Instead, there is inevitably a vague plan to increase the amount of affordable housing and to end homelessness, usually in about twenty years. Ending homelessness is the cold fusion of grant writing, always on the horizon and never actually here.

Twenty years is just soon enough to be plausible but long enough that the officials who are currently in office are likely to be elsewhere, which leaves space for the next crop of officials to make the same promises. Homelessness is probably not amenable to being cured. Leaving aside the fact that most major coastal cities like L.A. are actually becoming less affordable, not more, a lot of long-term homeless also don’t necessarily want to live in conventional housing, because conventional housing tends to come with lots of rules: no booze, no (illegal) drugs, anyone with a mental illness must take meds, low noise requirements, and so on. For a lot of the long-term homeless, the street doesn’t impose those rules and can actually seem preferable, despite its well-known hazards.

Worcester Massachusetts, where I went to college, has a famous, controversial “wet” homeless shelter. That shelter’s philosophy is simple: the homeless are better off in a relatively safe place, even if they want to drink, rather being forced onto the street by sobriety rules. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood NIMBYs are not fond of the shelter. This schism between wet and dry shelters demonstrate the way real homeless programs run right into all sorts of progressive ideal problems. Those problems can be ignored in the grant world, but they remain stubbornly entrenched in the real world. Gravity opposes the best intentions of rocket engineers.

To return to our previous point, in neither real world or the grant world does the size of the homeless population really matter. In the real world, there is nothing at stake in whether L.A. has 54,000 or 36,000 homeless. Neither number is going to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds. In the proposal world, homelessness is always a crisis that needs just a few more grant dollars to fix—within, say, the next 20 years.

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