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Mapping Downtown's Homeless Population

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, December 05, 2006, at 05:53PM
Eric Richardson / Cartifact

Forget the question of whether the housing market is slowing, stabilizing, collapsing, etc -- the real problem facing Downtown Los Angeles is that of homelessness. Though there are many different opinions on how to improve the situation of those on the streets, a first step is to simply understand the problem.

That's why I'm so excited to talk about what we've been doing at Cartifact to map LAPD Central division's bi-weekly homeless counts. The results are now online. Three maps are now available, covering counts taken on Nov. 1st, Nov. 15th and Dec. 1st.

I teased this a few weeks back, and it's taken a little longer to unfold than I thought it would. It's one of those things that ties together my work and my personal interests in Downtown, so getting to spend some time on this has been especially interesting.

Coincidental Inception

This whole project got started as the result of a happy coincidence of timing. In recent months we've had talks around the office about how to take our cartographic expertise and apply it to the issue of homelessness. A specific idea that emerged was to create a map of Downtown's homeless population.

We knew about LAPD's count, but had no clue what the data looked like. I emailed Captain Smith, and he replied that it was funny I should ask, as it had just come down that he was to start mapping the counts. Officer Fernandez of Central Division came over to our office to discuss their methodology, and it turned out that their data would be very well suited to what we had in mind to do.

Implementation

A few days later we got the data from the November 1st count and got to work looking to figure out how it might best be represented. That afternoon we had a rough map that I got to show to a few people at the November Skid Row Neighborhood Walk. After a bit more tweaking we got the map to where it is today.

When I describe the maps I keep coming back to saying that we want the maps to "tell the story" of Downtown's homeless situation. This sort of a map is never going to give you all the details. The addresses are a bit inspecific, geocoding is an imperfect art, and little bits of how the count is done varies depending on whether you've got a block with forty people on it or one with two. In my mind, though, it does succeeds in telling the story.

Change Over Time

What will be fascinating as time goes on is to see more of this data animated, allowing the first real views of how Downtown's homeless population is changing. Is the population growing? Is it shrinking? Is it spreading around Downtown? Is it contracting? Now we have a chance to really see that sort of thing.

Central has some data from before November that we'll be taking a look at, so there may even be maps emerging from earlier in the year. It would be particularly interesting to see data from before the Safer Cities initiative began and how those numbers flow into what we're seeing today.

We'll be making new maps as we get new data, and I'll certainly be sharing things I see in the maps that seem interesting.

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