SCV homeless experts dispute LAHSA 2020 youth 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

Under one definition, Los Angeles County has more than 4,700 young homeless individuals on any given night, and under a different classification, there are nearly 60,000, according to newly released youth homeless count data. 

Santa Clarita Valley homeless experts said Friday they are pushing for the latter definition to be used as the default so fewer homeless youth fall through the cracks in the counts, as tallies help in the allocation of federal funding for resources. 

On Thursday, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, or LAHSA, released its 2020 youth count, showing a 19% increase countywide from that of 2019 for a total of 4,775 individuals. Homeless “youth” are defined as 18- to 24-year-olds, unaccompanied minors and family households where the parents are up to 24 years old. 

The youth figure is included in the county’s overall homeless count of 66,436, according to LAHSA officials. 

Among K-12 students, the L.A. County Office of Education reported Thursday 57,726 homeless students for the 2018-19 point-in-time count but cumulative data showed that by the end of the school year, that figure was 68,161, according to Jennifer Kottke, a homeless education coordinator with the office.

Why two numbers? 

The difference between the reported 4,700 and 57,700 homeless youth falls into how homelessness is defined. 

The Office of Education uses the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act definition as set by the U.S. Department of Education, meaning youth who are couch-surfing, living in motels or with multiple families under one single-family housing unit are considered homeless. 

LAHSA’s methodology complies with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which counts other circumstances as homeless, such as individuals and families living on the streets, cars or emergency shelter transitional housing or hotels paid for by a government or charitable organization. 

“Our homeless count — the methodology — complies with the HUD requirement and the HUD definitions for homelessness and for youth,” said LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston. “So, that’s what we tailor to but we do recognize, and why we included that, that there are other populations that might not fall into that definition that are important to capture so we can understand how to best serve them, as well.” 

Kottke said there’s also an under-reporting within the school structure, adding, “It is an indication that there are more (homeless youth) but I think we have to keep in mind the difference between the definition and that is a really distinct piece here.” 

‘Frustrated’ with the counts

Members of the Santa Clarita homeless task force, who have worked to attain a more accurate local homeless count, agreed Friday that definition is key. 

“Family Promise, nationwide, has always been frustrated in the number count, and we have long supported the McKinney approach when it comes to children and youth,” said Laurie Ender, board member of Family Promise, a nonprofit serving homeless families in the SCV. “The differences in the counts are exactly what we expected.” 

A few years ago, the organization helped a single mom of five who slept in her car and had her children stay with different friends and family members. 

“One of the local junior high schools told us the oldest kid, a bright and motivated student, had access to wifi but no computer,” said Ender. “So, we reached out to the community and they donated him a laptop but I don’t know if those five students were ever counted in the HUD-LAHSA count.” 

The Newhall School District, which reported having approximately 148 homeless students (an increase of about 20 students since last year), said it has been able to reach far more homeless youth under the McKinney-Vento definition.

“Having three families living in one apartment is not considered adequate or stable,” said district Superintendent Jeff Pelzel. “The LAHSA numbers released for Santa Clarita dipped but it hasn’t, it has increased but not at the rate prior.” 

The district is gathering updated feedback from families for a more accurate local count when considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results are expected in October, he said. 

LAHSA’s 2020 overall count for Santa Clarita showed a 35% decrease from that of last year — a drop from 256 people to 168. 

While city-level 2020 youth counts data did not appear to be available, the organization’s service planning area-level data, which compiles the SCV with some parts of the San Fernando and Simi valleys, showed a 65% increase from 2019, or from 689 youth individuals to 1,138. 

As long as the figures are inaccurate, “the fight continues,” Ender said. 

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