Sat, Jul

The Farce and Tragedy of LAHSA’s PIT Count


iAUDIT! - When it comes to L.A.’s homelessness programs, few are as controversial as LAHSA’s annual Point In Time (PIT) count, the survey used to estimate the number of homeless people in L.A. County (except for some cities like Gendale, Pasadena and Long Beach, which conduct their own counts).  The PIT count is notorious for undercounting the unhoused population, and for being inaccurate in tracking changes from year to year. In addition, LAHSA, the City, and County seem to have trouble defining the count’s true purpose and value. 

Before getting into the details, it’s important to understand what the PIT count is and what it is not. The federal government requires all public continuum of care agencies to perform an annual estimate of the homeless populations in their jurisdictions.  The US government sets the count’s  timeline to match the federal funding calendar, so the count is done in late January or early February. HUD also lays out policies regarding sampling methods for the count and other technical requirements. The key word in that last sentence is “sampling”.  The PIT count is not a census in the sense of the decennial population tally performed by the U.S. Census Bureau. It is an estimate, based on formulas and assumptions made by each agency conducting the survey.  In his All Aspect Report column, Christopher LeGras, who was a volunteer for the 2024 and previous counts, details some of the assumptions made in the instructions given to volunteer counters, like assuming there are two people in an RV.  In its 2023 PIT Count presentation LAHSA describes the PIT count as a “regional estimate” and not a precise census of the actual homeless population. 

It is also important to note the count primarily depends on an army of volunteers rather than trained survey professionals. While LAHSA has hired statistical experts the last few years, they are there mainly to make sense of the data collected in the field, and have no direct control over the diligence used in its collection. As LeGras and others point out, training is minimal and remote, so LAHSA has no way of knowing if volunteers are properly prepared before they go into the field. The old adage “garbage in/garbage out” applies—if the base data is fundamentally flawed, all the professional analyses in the world after the fact won’t make them good. 

We can already see the problems with the count’s accuracy; thousands of minimally trained volunteers fan out across the County for a few nights and use questionable assumptions about the number of people in tents or RV’s.  Note the count takes place at night, so it is easy to miss people in dark corners, where many of the unhoused seek security.  For safety reasons, LAHSA discourages its counters from making direct contact with the homeless, so its virtually impossible to do any kind of verification on questionable or missed counts. (There is also some irony in advocates’ claims that encampments are safe havens for the homeless, when LAHSA won’t let its own counters near them). 

Add to that base layer of inaccuracy the decidedly dodgy software LAHSA uses to collect data.  The 2022 PIT count was roundly criticized by survey professionals, volunteers, and elected officials, due at least in part to the clunky smart phone app counters were supposed to use.  Many volunteers noted problems uploading their counts to LAHSA’s database, potentially missing thousands of unhoused people.  In one particularly infamous incident, the 2022 count missed as many as 267 people in Venice, some of whom were interviewed by a TV crew, camping in a location where the count said nobody was living. For the 2024 count, LAHSA bought new software from GIS mapping giant ESRI, but judging by Christopher LeGras and others, it worked no better than the old system, especially when it came to uploading the numbers.  There is no reason to think the 2024 count will be any better than those that have come before. 

What turns the PIT count from farce to tragedy is the way it is used in planning homelessness intervention strategy.  Despite LAHSA’s claims it is merely a regional estimate, it is a key element in how homelessness resources are allocated across LA County.  LAHSA divides the County into eight Service Planning Areas (SPA’s), and the PIT count’s statistics are reported by SPA.  Many services are tied to the count by SPA.  For example, a contract for an outreach service provider may be based on the number of unhoused people in a SPA, and require a certain number of those people to receive services.  If the homeless population in that SPA is undercounted, then the contract will require services for fewer people than would otherwise be required. If the count is inaccurate, excess resources may be dedicated to an area that doesn’t need them, and other locations will be starved of services. 

A particularly egregious example occurred in 2022 because of a supposed reduction in the homeless population of SPA-5, which covers West L.A. The count showed a supposed 39 percent decrease in homelessness on the Westside.  Leaders including the then-CEO of LAHSA, Mayor Garcetti and Councilmember Bonin trumpeted the decrease as “proof” that Housing First works and that more of the same would lead to greater reductions.  Remember, this is a count that is supposed to be a regional estimate, but the very local results in one area were being used as proof of success.  Soon after the 2022 count results were released, questions arose as to its accuracy. A professional RAND count found an 18 percent increase in areas where little or no increases were shown in the LAHSA count. Complaints from volunteers about missing data began appearing in the media.  Soon, elected officials were calling for reviews and audits of LAHSA’s counting methodology. LAHSA’s interim CEO, who weeks before boasted of the success based on the SPA 5 counts, went on a local TV news program to claim, once again, that the count was just a regional estimate. 

The 2023 count fared little better.  Almost as soon as the count began, volunteers reported problems with the software.  Although a summary of the count was released in summer, details were not released until November, 10 months after the count. LAHSA claimed the data were undergoing “quality control”, but the numbers were no less shocking when they were released.  SPA-5, which supposedly saw a 39 percent reduction the year before, saw a 45 percent increase in 2023. On the other hand, the L.A. Times reported that the SPA covering South L.A. saw a 10 percent decrease in homelessness, but the article admitted some of that could have been due to people moving away from the area, and even those who entered Inside Safe facilities may have left. Anyone who has taken an undergraduate course in surveys or statistics knows that wild swings in results from year to year or region to region is a sign flawed methodology. 

When one pulls away from the PIT count and looks at LAHSA’s overall track record reporting service numbers, we can see just how fictitious its claims to any kind of success are. From City Council meetings we already know LAHSA does accurately track the number of people in Inside Safe rooms, provoking Councilmember Rodriguez to call the system a “merry-go-round from Hell”. A December 2023 City Controller report said LAHSA’s system for tracking shelter bed use is so inaccurate, city helpline employees call individual shelters to see if there any available beds. As I’ve said several times before, LAHSA’s claim it “housed” more than 20,000 people in 2022 was tempered by an obscure footnote noting the 20,000 included an unknown number of repeat clients. 

Survey professionals agree the best way to get an accurate count of L.A.’s homeless population would be to use a relatively small corps of highly-trained paid employees to perform the annual survey. Instead of performing the count in three nights in the dead of winter, the count would be longitudinal, taking place over months so shifts in populations could be tracked. A longitudinal survey would also more accurately reflect the effect of specific intervention programs at the local level. But there is no incentive to invest the resources and energy needed to make structural changes, when there are no consequences for the haphazard methods used now.  Despite threats of audits and withheld funding, nothing happens. 

So, the basic fact is LAHSA is an agency with an $800 million annual budget, employing more than 1,000 people, and it is unable to provide verifiable data on how many homeless people there are in L.A. County, where they are, and how many of them have been sheltered and housed. It has admitted in public it doesn’t consistently enforce contract provisions requiring service providers to make timely reports of shelter use.  Most shockingly, it continues the fiction that it is somehow succeeding, when each year the homeless population climbs by the thousands.

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)