The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority announced Friday that it was delaying its annual homeless census by a month because of the risks posed by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
In doing so, L.A. County became the latest jurisdiction in California to delay its count. Several parts of the Bay Area have announced or are considering delaying their point-in-time counts a month as well. San Diego did so as well this week.
This year’s count is considered especially significant because authorities in Los Angeles, as in most parts of the state, canceled the homeless census last year during the winter surge of COVID-19. As a result, officials have had trouble getting a handle on how the pandemic has influenced the size of the region’s homeless population.
Roughly 7,000 volunteers had been scheduled to fan out across the county to undertake the count over three days later this month. Now the task of counting tents, cars and other structures will take place Feb. 22-24.
“While we work to ensure an accurate homeless count, we cannot ignore the surging number of positive COVID-19 cases across our region,” said LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston. “Even with safety precautions such as moving training online, developing outdoor deployment sites, and keeping households together, moving forward with a count in January places our unhoused neighbors, volunteers, staff, and the accuracy of the count at risk.”
A huge undertaking, the census costs millions of dollars and represents a moment when the public focuses on one of its most vexing challenges. The data, which help set priorities for how money is spent, can become a political football.
There are little reliable data to assess the effectiveness of the hundreds of millions of dollars the city and county have spent on combatting homelessness since the start of the pandemic. As a result, the numbers this year were highly anticipated as thousands of new units of housing — mostly interim — have opened since the last count took place in January 2020.
The 2020 count found about 66,000 people were homeless in Los Angeles County.
“The homeless count is an essential tool in giving us a point-in-time snapshot of homelessness. Data from the count is used to inform the delivery of services and programs for people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles,” Marston said in a written statement. “This decision is our best path to ensure the accuracy of the homeless count without putting the health and safety of persons experiencing homelessness, volunteers, and the community at risk.”
The pandemic has hit the homeless population hard. Last week there were 918 confirmed infection cases among homeless people, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. The number of new cases per week climbed dramatically during December as the Omicron variant spread. There have been outbreaks at dozens of shelters throughout the region.
This surge caused activists and social service organizations to ask elected officials to pause authorization and enforcement of a law banning encampments in certain locations throughout the city.
That has not taken place.