How does Long Beach use data from the homeless count—and why does it matter?
No one believes Long Beach’s annual point-in-time homeless count is an exact science, but the results are critical in directing how the city responds to people on its streets, where it spends money for homeless issues and even how much funding is available.
The 2023 count was held early Thursday with more than 300 volunteers and city staff fanning out across the city to seek out unhoused people and get answers to several dozen survey questions about their circumstances and what kinds of help they need.
While the results likely won’t be out for a few months, some observers expect to see a larger number of homeless in Long Beach compared with 2022—which itself showed a 62% increase compared with the 2020 count. (No count was held in 2021 due to the pandemic.)
“I think we are going to see, unfortunately, another increase,” Downtown Long Beach Alliance President Austin Metoyer said. (The nonprofit alliance advocates for Downtown residents and businesses.) “Just kind of talking to folks on the streets, talking to residents and business owners … we’re seeing new folks that we haven’t seen before.”
The Rev. Jane Gould, whose St. Luke’s Episcopal Church has been serving the city’s unhoused for more than three decades, shared a similar sentiment.
“You can’t go through Downtown Long Beach and believe we’ve had a drop in our unhoused community.”
Although more of the regulars at St. Luke’s have been able to get into housing in the past couple years than previously, Gould said, “we’re not seeing a decrease in numbers of people coming for services.”
No one is happy when the number of unhoused people increases, but a variety of factors can influence whether it grows or shrinks—and information from the count is useful for more than just a snap judgment on whether the city’s response is working.
How it’s used
A key reason Long Beach and other cities and counties conduct a regular point-in-time count is that it’s required to be eligible for some federal grants and other funding that can help create housing and pay for programs.
A good portion of state funding for homeless issues is also determined by formulas that use information from the count, and the state also sets money aside for communities that meet their targets for reducing the number of unhoused, said Paul Duncan, the city’s homeless services bureau manager.
In short, homeless count data helps the city show the extent of the issues it’s dealing with and why it needs funding.
The data also helps homeless advocates and service providers understand who they’re working with, what specific kinds of help or outreach they may need, and some of the underlying causes that led them to the streets.
Duncan said survey questions cover mental and physical health issues, substance abuse, and trauma and violence people may have experienced. When a question about foster care was added, officials learned about 20% of Long Beach’s unhoused residents had a connection to the system, Duncan said, and that “childhood disruption” could be a factor in later struggles.
Once the data is in, the city can use it to figure out how to dole out a finite and fluctuating amount of funding. Some grants are one-time while other money is available year after year, so Duncan said officials try to balance investments in interim shelter and permanent housing, and capital projects (such as last year’s purchase of the Luxury Inn with state Project Homekey funds) with ongoing programs and services.
Since 2021, the city has received or is expecting more than $90 million from federal, state and local sources to spend on outreach, rental assistance, temporary and permanent housing and related uses. On Thursday, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez announced a $4 million grant to fund the city’s Multi-Service Center, its hub of homeless services.
Beyond spending decisions, two recent developments have raised the stakes for creating an effective response to the homeless crisis.
In November, Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to withhold $1 billion (including $8.5 million earmarked for Long Beach) in funding to local governments that he thought weren’t doing enough to address homelessness in their communities.
And in December, when Rex Richardson was sworn in as Long Beach’s new mayor, he vowed to make addressing the issue a centerpiece of his administration; the City Council declared a state of emergency earlier this month.
Imperfect but imperative
Knowing what information to collect and why it’s needed is only half the battle. Finding unhoused people and getting them to complete the survey and being as accurate as possible pose their own challenges.
“The big caveat is that this is just this one night,” said Alvin Teng, who works in the city’s homeless services division and is overseeing the homeless count. “We’re under no impression that this is the exact number that stays static throughout the whole year.”
A snapshot like the point-in-time count isn’t as good at capturing people who aren’t in a shelter or on the street but are without permanent housing.
“It’s really soft data because it’s so hard to count people and folks who are couch surfing, overcrowding, moved in with family—none of that gets counted in a point-in-time count,” said Gould of St. Luke’s.
And sometimes the results of the count can prove puzzling, like last year when Long Beach’s total homeless population was up 62% since 2020, while Los Angeles County as a whole only saw a 4% increase.
Gould said some of the people who come to St. Luke’s programs say they feel safer in Long Beach than in other parts of the county, so that could affect the numbers. She also wondered if the big jump in unhoused Latino and Cambodian residents—who have typically had lower rates of homelessness—could be attributed to less willingness to take in needy friends and family due to worries about COVID-19.
The city also has a large percentage of renters, who may be more at the mercy of the economy, Duncan said. He noted the 2022 count increased the focus on harder-to-find groups such as youth and people living in vehicles, and that could have boosted the city’s numbers a little.
Regardless of the count’s arguable flaws, the data it yields is vital because it lets the public as well as the city gauge the effectiveness of Long Beach’s homeless response, the DLBA’s Metoyer said.
“This is one of the few ways that we can hold public agencies accountable to providing resources to those who are unhoused,” he said.
Duncan and Gould agreed that beyond an overall number, having information on individuals who need help can tell city leaders whether they’re providing the kinds of assistance that will get people back on their feet.
Not every unhoused person needs the same things, and the city has to craft a broader strategy to encompass that diversity, Gould said, adding, “how do you build policies to respond to one person at a time?”
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