The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has granted Los Angeles County an exception to conducting the 2021 homeless count in an effort to avoid a potential COVID-19 superspreader event.
With the green light to waive unsheltered counts in 2021, the county will proceed with its sheltered tally and housing inventory count, according to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority officials.
HUD requires that communities tally unsheltered homeless people, known as a “Point-in-Time” count, over the course of at least one day in January every two years, which would fall in 2021.
L.A. County conducts its own tally annually, and typically involves the participation of multiple service providers, local municipalities and thousands of volunteers first in training and then the actual count in the field. On Jan. 21, more than 100 people volunteered in Santa Clarita to count those living on the streets.
Bringing this many people together to conduct the count poses a high risk amid the pandemic, according to Supervisor Hilda Solis, who introduced a motion that the Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday, ultimately expressing support for LAHSA’s request to cancel the 2021 PIT count and approval to send HUD a letter to formally exempt the county.
“Moving ahead with the PIT counts would be a risky and challenging activity at best and a dangerous, superspreader event in the worst-case scenario, quickly infecting a high number of people with a very contagious and deadly disease,” read the motion.
HUD has already issued updated guidelines that aim for safe tallies of the homeless amid the pandemic, such as decreasing face-to-face interactions with clients, reducing the number of volunteers and providing personal protective equipment to them. But officials said Wednesday that communities can opt out as safety is HUD’s priority.
“If a community believes they can safely conduct an unsheltered count, we are working with them to do so. But if they have evaluated the circumstances and concluded that they cannot, then we grant the exception,” said spokesman Ed Cabrera in an email.
In a webinar last week, LAHSA officials said the request to cancel the 2021 count came after hearing from providers and municipalities that they do not have the bandwidth to support an unsheltered count and their concerns with health risks for staff and volunteers.
“I agree with the Board of Supervisors and with LAHSA’s decision that it would be a potential super spreader event,” said Michael Foley, director of Bridge to Home and a member of the Santa Clarita community task force on homelessness. “I think that our homeless service systems are working overtime right now, and to attempt to have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people gathering together, learning how to go and do the count appropriately going out in groups, that just doesn’t make a lot of sense as we reach, you know, really the heights of the COVID crisis in January.”
With the potential for a reduced number of volunteers, if there were to be a count, Foley said accuracy would be at risk. Santa Clarita’s task force has worked toward attaining a more accurate count as previous figures have depicted what is believed to be a far lower number of the area’s actual homeless population. This year’s total was 168, a tally that aligns more closely to Newhall School District’s student homeless population of about 148, according to Superintendent Jeff Pelzel in a previous interview.
“During the webinar, I reiterated the position of Santa Clarita Community Task Force on Homelessness of using real-time, actual data provided by individual service providers to make funding decisions,” said Jerrid McKenna, assistant to the city manager, in an emailed update to task force members on LAHSA’s request to opt out of the count.
The federal government uses data from the counts to determine funding that communities could receive to help reduce their homeless population.
LAHSA plans to use the 2020 results for federal funding determination.
“To clarify, there has not been a significant impact to funding received by the city or local service providers, even with a lower figure provided in 2020,” said McKenna. “We have been able to use other data to support and justify these funding requests and will continue this successful practice.”