For many years, during the month of January, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has conducted a citywide count of its homeless population, and the results are used to track trends and locations, plan for services, and help set budgets for both city- and community-level responses. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the citywide homeless count this year, but in several communities, activists and concerned neighbors decided the information was too important to forego, and scheduled their own counts of unhoused individuals in their neighborhoods.
One of these groups was the Mid City West Community Council, which organized a count of its 37 local census tracts in March, using methods previously established by both LAHSA and the Hollywood4WRD coalition (which also did its own count in Hollywood in February). According to MCWCC board member Arnali Ray, who helped organize the MidCity West count and also works at the Saban Clinic, where 10% of the clients are homeless, knowing the exact size and locations of the local homeless population is extremely important when trying to provide services to unhoused individuals, especially in an area like Mid City West, where the number of services available is few and far between.
The MCWCC count took place on the evening of March 26, with about 65 volunteers driving together in COVID-safe pairs, with each pair assigned to specific census tracts.
Following the count, results were tabulated and anlyzed, and the data was presented at the most recent MCWCC board meeting, on May 11.
Introducing the presentation, MCWCC president Lauren Nichols thanked the members of the organizing team, as well as a long list of business and community partners who provided resources for the project. Complimenting the participants’ efforts, Nichols said, “To me that’s what it’s all about. It’s about working across sectors, it’s about looking for opportunities to bring more people into the solution — making progress and making them feel empowered that they can help out.” Also, in addition to simply gathering numbers, Nichols said the count provided a good way for participants to begin to engage personally with the community and the issue of homelessness.
The homeless count results were presented at the meeting by former MCWCC board member Emily Uyeda Kantrim, who also works with the Midtown Homeless Coalition and helped organize the Mid City West event.
Kantrim began her presentation by explaining that while the pandemic actually brought many services for the homeless to the Mid City West area for the first time (including several Project Roomkey sites and an emergency shelter at the Pan Pacific Park Recreation Center), those resources will be closing soon, and no other services are scheduled to replace them…which means the Mid City West Community Council will have a big role to play in building new solutions for the community. And that effort starts, she said, with being able to quantify specific needs – knowing who’s out there, where they are, and what they need.
Kantrim reported that, according to the new count and surprising to many people, the number of unhoused persons in the Mid City West area was up only about 7% from the year before. But there has definitely been a change in the streetscape, she said, and in the circumstances of the local population. More specifically, there was a 20% decline in the number of “rough sleepers,” those without any shelter, and a 95% increase in the number of tents and makeshift dwellings on the street. And because those tents and other shelters take up more space, and are much more visible, Kantrim said, the streets do look different this year, and this has heightened community awareness of the “despair” of living on the streets, and created an impression among community members that the overall level of homelessness has increased by more than it actually has.
According to Kantrim, the observations from March were:
Kantrim also reported that there were no families or youths observed during this year’s count, and that 2020 was the first year that tents were actually distributed to homeless residents by service groups, to help them shelter in place (which is one reason there were so many more tents this year).
Finally, Kantrim noted that people often spend their first few nights of homelessness in their vehicles, and may move around for a while, so vehicle dwellers may be less likely to be counted in a census like this one.
What Happens with the Data
Now that the count has been tabulated, Kantrim said, it will help MCWCC and other local groups and agencies figure out what kinds of services are most needed, and where. For example, Kantrim said, there were no supportive housing facilities or shelters within the Mid City West area in 2018…but since then, because previous homeless counts showed these things were necessary, the MCWCC supported a new 50-unit supportive housing project in 2019, and the conversion of an existing property to supportive housing in 2020. And she said that land use is not the only area in which the MCWCC and its committees can help — there are opportunities for many different MCWCC committees, from Planning & Land Use to Arts & Recreation, and eveything in between, to consider what they can do to engage with the issue of homelessness, and to support local homeless individuals.
Kantrim also noted that in many cases, there will be opportunities for overlap and cooperation among committees — for example, providing meals and kits of basic supplies could fall under the purview of both the Outreach & Communication and the Economic Development committees. And affordable housing issues are the domain of both Planning & Land Use and the Social & Racial Equity committees.
And Kantrim said the need for all kinds of homeless services will soon increase…for two reasons.
First, she said, there have been a number of additional resources within the Mid City West area during the pandemic, including two sets of handwashing stations and portapotties, the recreation center emergency shelter at Pan Pacific Park, and 90 recuperative care rooms available for those who have health issues. But all of those will be gone at the end of May, leaving shower services the only necessity permanently available in Mid City West, and very few other services available within the 13.5 square miles of the larger Midtown homeless service area.
And the second reason that needs for local services will soon increase, Kantrim said, is that it’s expected that when the city’s current pandemic-mandated moratorium on evictions ends, there will be a large surge in the number of people who fall out of housing and onto the streets. So both the city and the MCWCC will be forced to reckon with many new questions, such as identifying those most at risk for losing their housing, how to make homelessness as brief as possible for those who do lose housing, what will happen to those currently in emergency shelters if they don’t find housing before those shelters close, and what kinds of solutions and resources can be brought to Mid City West when it has traditionally been overlooked for such services (which tend to go more often to higher density, higher poverty neighborhoods like Skid Row).
For more information on the Mid City West homeless count, a press release, technical summary, and presentation slides summarizing the project are available online…and the full MCWCC board meeting video, which includes the Emily Kantrim’s presentation and discussion of the project’s results, is available here.