Volunteers convened in the streets of Burbank this week to count homeless individuals sleeping outside or in cars as part of the countywide 2024 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count.
The effort is a massive undertaking that serves to inform policy and services for city staff.
“The count helps provide greater insight into homelessness across the Los Angeles region and helps policymakers deliver programs and services where they are needed most,” said Christopher Yee, spokesman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, in an interview with the Leader.
The count is the largest-scale point-in-time homeless count in the United States, which is a Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement for municipalities across the country.
“It has several components, but what most people think of when discussing it is the point-in-time street count. This is the portion where thousands of volunteers join us in doing a visual count throughout the region,” said Yee.
In the visual count, if a volunteer sees a person experiencing homelessness, they add them to the tally, whether that person is outside, in a tent or makeshift dwelling or a vehicle that looks inhabited.
Burbank’s most recent count results showed that homeless numbers declined by 9%, from 291 in 2020 to 264 in 2022.
In addition to the point-in-time count, professional surveyors also embark in a demographic survey.
While volunteers never have to engage with people experiencing homelessness during the count, Yee said, as part of the demographic survey, paid surveyors speak with people experiencing homelessness and collect demographic data from them, which provides additional granular data in the final report.
Once every phase of the homeless count is completed, LAHSA shares the data with its partners at the University of Southern California, who calculate the homeless count estimate that the county releases to Burbank and other cities every year, several months after the count is taken.
“Cities like Burbank can use the raw data from each aspect of the homeless count to inform their decision-making regarding homelessness. However, the count is not intended for use as a census of neighborhood-level geographies,” Yee said.
Cities receive data about how many people experiencing unsheltered homelessness and the number of vehicles and makeshift dwellings were counted in their jurisdiction.
Burbank’s Community Development Department relies on the count as a litmus test to determine the growth of the crisis, but also to gauge the efficacy of ongoing homeless services in the city.
“The count tells us, basically, where’s the trend going? Are we increasing in our homeless number? Are we decreasing our homeless number? And it then informs the Council and staff about policy decisions,” Assistant Director of Community Development Simone McFarland told the Leader.
“Do we need to change the way we’re doing things? Do we need to increase it? Last year, even though our count went down by 9%, the Council wanted to increase our budget for our outreach team, so they allocated funds to have another outreach person.”
In the past, the Council has also referenced homeless count data in discussions regarding potential new shelters in the city. A tiny homes village on Lincoln Street or a shelter on North Front Street in the location that is currently occupied by Hollywood Piano are options the panel is currently considering.
North Front Street is the location of a large storage safe where homeless individuals can drop off their possessions for days at a time, without the threat of having those items stolen.
It’s all part of a greater effort in Burbank to expand homeless services so the city pulls its weight in addressing the regional crisis, which has accelerated in recent years.
The city has taken extra steps to continue data collection throughout the year, so that residents can report an individual in need, and the city can reach out to offer services.
“If [a resident] sees somebody [who] needs assistance, using the Our Burbank 311 app allows us to track that information. That’s the city’s workflow. We really encourage everybody to download that app if they want to report a homeless person or person in need,” said McFarland.
From there, the city’s street outreach team contacts the individual and tries to determine their needs, in some cases helping to relocate that person to a shelter, buying them a bus ticket to a family member or friend, or providing family housing services through partner nonprofit Home Again LA.
“What the street outreach does is try to build up a relationship. Of course, everyone is different. Some people are willing to talk to our outreach team, and some are not. So, what they do is consistently approach those people, build a relationship and trust, find out history and offer services,” McFarland said.
Each city in the region has its own process, but participating municipalities throughout Los Angeles have made it a priority in recent years to do their part in fighting the crisis, according to city staff, and the count is an essential effort to understand the scope of homelessness in each community, according to LAHSA.
In a survey released this July, Burbank residents identified homelessness as the highest priority issue by a large margin.
And according to Yee, the count would be prohibitively expensive to do with paid staff. The parts of Los Angeles County LAHSA counts is about 4,000 square miles and covering that much territory can only be done with the help of thousands of volunteers.
“The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count is only possible thanks to thousands of volunteers who come together to compassionately support every person in need of a safe place to call home,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor and LAHSA Chair Lindsey Horvath in a statement.
The last day of the count was Thursday and results are now being processed by experts at USC and may not be finalized until summer.
First published in the January 27 print issue of the Burbank Leader.