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Few Volunteers, Tech Glitches Hamper Homeless Count


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By Jorge Casuso

January 29, 2024 -- Wednesday's annual homeless count in Santa Monica had far fewer volunteers than previous years and may have encountered some technical glitches, according to data and statements from County officials.

The drawbacks will likely heighten skepticism that the homeless census -- a four-hour snapshot taken on one January night each year -- accurately reflects Santa Monica's highly visible and transient homeless population.

The 2024 census -- the first run by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), rather than the City -- had a total of 99 volunteers, according to data provided by LASHA.

That was less than one third the more than 300 volunteers who in recent years combed every street in Santa Monica -- a total of 226 linear miles -- to tally homeless individuals sleeping outdoors, as well as in cars, RVs and tents.

"The inevitability of an incorrect count is assured this way," said Mayor Phil Brock. "I'm flabbergasted by that and know the count won't be accurate.

"It's hard enough to count (the homeless) in the middle of winter," Brock said.

Ahmad Chapman, LAHSA's communications director, said the volunteers recruited for Santa Monica "were able to complete all of the census tracts" in the 8.3-square-mile city.

In addition to the low volunteer turnout, upgrades to the new technology -- which LAHSA implemented after undercounts were found in the 2022 census -- did not run as smoothly as expected, County officials said last week.

There was a delay in the transfer of data from the counting app to the dashboard and "issues" with the volunteer dashboard, as well as with volunteers who "experienced challenges with the app during the count," County officials said.

"We always plan for the Count to go smoothly, but we also prepare for when things do not," LAHSA CEO Va Lecia Adams Kellum said in a statement Friday.

"In the days to come, LAHSA will look closer at what went right and where we need to improve so we continue on the right trajectory in 2025."

The delay in the transfer of data to the dashboard "did not affect the collection or storage of the data," Adams Kellum said.

"We worked with our partners at ESRI (which supplied the GIS software) to ensure there was enough bandwidth to transfer the data smoothly on nights two and three."

To handle issues with the volunteer dashboard, LAHSA implemented a "contingency plan" established last year that "ensured that a LAHSA employee staffed each deployment site to troubleshoot any issues," she said.

LAHSA also staffed a technical support hotline that was available to every deployment site.

A contingency plan was also in place for volunteers who "experienced challenges with the app during the count," Adams Kellum said. The plan "called for the use of paper and pen to record the people and makeshift dwellings."

"Once volunteers returned to their deployment site the data was uploaded to our central database," she said.

Paper tallies were replaced during the 2022 count after LASHA determined "paper lacks the resilience of a digital process, as it can get wet or otherwise lead to errors," according to the website Government Technology.

Chapman could not verify if the tech glitches did not impact Wednesday night's count in Santa Monica.

Last Wednesday was the first time City officials did not run the annual census or recruit volunteers.

"This year’s homeless count was a different experience for us in Santa Monica, as we transitioned to the county leading the effort rather than handling it in-house," City Manager David White said in a statement.

"Our partnership with LAHSA will allow us to present results in a regional context and this collaboration is part of Santa Monica’s strategic push to coordinate with regional service providers for a holistic approach to addressing homelessness.

"We’re looking forward to understanding the results from LAHSA later this year to inform the city’s comprehensive strategic plan for addressing homelessness, currently in development," White said.

Mayor Brock worries the drawbacks in this year's count could jeopardize the amount of funding and resources allocated by the County based on the census numbers.

"That becomes distressing," he said. "The County relies on the census. It's their biblical source."

LAHSA expects to release the results of the 2024 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count in late spring/early summer 2024.

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