LAHSA continues struggle with homeless count

FILE PHOTO From left, Alix Schwartz, 26, Gabby Vera, 27, and Hector Sherman, 30, look at a map next to Valencia Meadows Park as they participate in the annual homeless count on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Nikolas Samuels/The Signal
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Those working with the Santa Clarita Valley’s homeless population fear the county’s annual count of people in need of housing is once again lower than the actual figure, despite having 30% more people helping in the count. 

The 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reported a 35% decrease from last year’s SCV figure — a drop from 256 people in 2019 to 168 in 2020 — which experts indicated was more a reflection of the challenges in defining and identifying homeless individuals, an issue every year. In its data, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority also indicated the annual count excludes transition-age youth, domestic violence shelters and people using emergency motel vouchers due to privacy matters. 

The tally is far lower than what members of the local homeless task force say is the actual count, and a significant part of the discrepancy has to do with defining who is homeless. 

At the Newhall School District alone, for example, Superintendent Jeff Pelzel said Thursday the district has approximately 148 homeless students, an increase of about 20 students since last year. 

“I think the challenge is on how you look at and define homelessness,” Pelzel said. “For us, we look into adequate housing. You may see two or three families living in a two-bedroom apartment with multiple kids trading beds or some on the floor, and that’s inadequate housing.” 

The challenge also comes with how individuals are counted, he added.

“When we engage in that count for that single night in (January), we drive around looking for people in tents, RVs and the streets, and it’s often hard to see at night, but you also can’t see the four families living together in an apartment. That’s the disconnect.” 

Santa Clarita’s 2020 count is part of the 54,291 counted across L.A. County, a figure that excludes transition-age youth, domestic violence shelters and those using emergency motel vouchers. 

Results of the annual count, used by the federal government and county, determine how much money would be allocated to local homeless programs and services, which helped transition Bridge to Home’s SCV shelter operations from seasonal to year-round. 

Sheltered vs. unsheltered

For those counted under “sheltered persons,” 57 people out of 65 were attributed to living in emergency shelters, such as Bridge to Home. The remaining eight were counted as living in transitional housing. 

A closer look at “unsheltered persons” data showed that out of 103, a total of 42 individuals were living in RVs and campers and 21 were living on the street. Last year, about 23% of 256 homeless individuals were counted living in RVs. 

Results also showed 3, or 2.77%, of the 103 were people in makeshift shelters. In January, the city organized six teams consisting of Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station deputies, code enforcement officers and county homelessness experts to conduct an early-morning operation in areas, such as riverbeds, that had not been included in previous counts. One of the six teams had counted about 20 tents or makeshift shelters, according to Jerrid McKenna, assistant to the city manager, who partook in both the morning and night canvass. 

Makeshift shelter data is one example of the discrepancy in the 2020 count to the actual local tally, according to Mike Foley, director of Bridge to Home, the SCV’s primary homeless service provider. 

“We know from the numbers on the 2020 report for makeshift shelters that they aren’t accurate,” he said, adding, “We’re looking forward to a process in which the numbers that were counted will actually be reflected in the report.” 

Mayor Cameron Smyth talks to more than 100 volunteers at The Centre before heading to the streets for the 2020 homeless count on Jan. 21. Tammy Murga/ The Signal

While the count is below the actual figure, the 2020 decrease does reflect that local partnerships and resources available are playing a role in both responsive and preventative efforts, said Mayor Cameron Smyth, who is also chair of the city’s homeless task force. 

“Our efforts with having a year-round shelter and our services continue to grow, so it does change what the count looks like,” he said. “And while the number of people identified at the time may not be the most accurate reflection, and we know that going in considering it’s a one-day count, we have developed a model to help give us data specific to Santa Clarita to help people access services.” 

Besides customizing a homeless count specific to Santa Clarita, the task force, which consists of 30 local organizations, has also developed a homeless registry to better understand the needs of the local population. Once complete, the registry is expected to help identify who is homeless, what services are needed and what they have accessed. 

Member organization Family Promise SCV has served more than 70 clients through shelter programs and has supported 115 families, while Bridge to Home has served 1,062 unduplicated clients via intake and outreach, eviction prevention and case management. The shelter is also working to enhance its shelter facility in Newhall. 

No checkout date

A Super 8 in Canyon Country also provides more than four dozen beds for homeless individuals in the SCV not included in the homeless count, according to officials. 

The contract was set to expire July 15, but it has been extended, according to Michelle Vega, spokeswoman for county Supervisor Kathyrn Barger, via email. Requests for information about the extended lease expiration date were not returned. 

Los Angeles County Lifeguard Jack Bark, left, and Andrea Rocha from Bidge, right, to Home discusses the resident check in procedures at the check in tent at the Super 8 Hotel in Canyon Country on Saturday, April 11, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal

Bridge to Home has offered 60 beds to temporarily house the homeless, as well as provide 50 rooms at the Canyon Country hotel through Project Roomkey — a statewide effort to procure housing for the homeless amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both locations have operated at full capacity. 

“Regardless of the report,” Foley said, “we continue intensive efforts to help move people from homelessness to housing and provide basic services to help survive the COVID-19 crisis.”

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