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LA County now has a homeless population of more than 50,000, including the largest unsheltered population of anywhere in the country.
Samanta Helou Hernandez

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If you have a home, sign up for the homeless count

It’s always important to gather accurate data for LA’s homeless count—but this is the year that our unhoused neighbors need us most

“It’s a good news year,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a press conference this week. “We have crime down in every major category in this city.” It wasn’t until Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore was questioned by a reporter afterwards that Moore revealed a glaring omission in the crime statistics the city had presented.

Crime, including violent crime, was up—way up—for one group of Angelenos. Last year saw a 24 percent increase in crimes committed against the city’s homeless residents. Additionally, according to the 2019 crime data, 42 of the city’s 253 homicide victims, about one in six, were homeless.

Approximately 1,000 homeless residents died last year in LA County, a number that doubled between 2013 and 2018, according to a report released in October by public health officials. That works out to about three unhoused people who die every day.

People are not living on LA’s streets. They are being sentenced to death.

LA County now has a homeless population of more than 50,000, including the largest unsheltered population of anywhere in the country. In the city of LA, the number of people experiencing homelessness grew 16 percent in a single year to 36,300.

But something else has changed. From 2016 to 2018, most of the homeless residents who died in LA were white. Now the majority of homeless people who die are black and Latino. A recent New York Times investigation showed how black Angelenos make up 8 percent of the city’s population but 40 percent of the homeless population.

In Los Angeles, homelessness is not necessarily an issue of poverty—it’s about the unequal distribution of wealth. It’s about the structural racism in our city that reaches back decades, determining who had access to homeownership and which neighborhoods they could live in. Tackling this crisis is about righting systemic inequities.

If you have access to a stable home, even as skyrocketing rents continue to outpace wage increases, you need to make sure you are doing everything in your power to make sure that your neighbors do, too.

There is a lot of work before us. Last year, I wrote a guide to how to get started, from advocating for new shelter projects that get hamstrung by lawsuits, to joining community outreach groups that are filling in gaps in city services, to offering safe parking at your workplace or church. The Los Angeles Times’ Nita Lelyveld recommends asking your unhoused neighbors what they need. She made a list of necessities she now carries around with her, from clean socks to TAP cards.

But the best place to confront the urgency of the situation is by signing up for the homelessness count, which is January 21, 22, and 23.

When you sign up, you choose a reporting site in your neighborhood, so you’ll get to meet caseworkers and other volunteers from your own community. You’re not required to make contact with the people you’re counting, but sometimes you end up talking to people you walk by every day. It takes about four hours of your time, and even if you think you know how homelessness is affecting your neighborhood, it will likely change the way you view the crisis.

Volunteers are crucial for these annual “point-in-time” counts, which are conducted all over the country, because they provide information that helps cities figure out how to allocate resources. But gathering the right data in LA is especially crucial this year in light of recent developments at the local, state, and federal level that have homelessness activists worried.

As of this week, both Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom have confirmed forming partnerships with the Trump administration, which is reportedly preparing a crackdown that would force unhoused people to move into federal facilities—even if they’re nowhere near where they live now.

At the state level, a task force wants to require cities to provide a bed for every homeless person in their jurisdiction. While that sounds like a positive development, activists are claiming that sweeps—where homeless residents are sometimes evacuated from particular sites—are being scaled up in the weeks before the count, so certain cities or council districts won’t be on the hook to build as many shelter beds next year.

And locally, a new outreach-led services initiative that city leaders promised would help get people into stable homes while keeping public right-of-ways clean has been quietly reverted back to the model that shows power-washing sidewalks, not housing their own constituents, is our councilmembers’ top priority.

It’s critically important to make these counts accurate every January. But this year, it’s also about bearing witness to a crisis that has the potential to escalate into a catastrophe. We need to show our unhoused neighbors that there are more of us fighting for their lives than leaving them to die on our streets.

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