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Homeless Count Rise a Reminder that Progress is Not Always Steady

By Eric Richardson
Published: Wednesday, April 04, 2007, at 08:03AM

The Times took a ride along yesterday as Central division did the first of its April homeless counts. The count found a little over a 25% increase in homeless population.

But the results of an LAPD census conducted early Tuesday morning threw cold water on the celebration and served as a reminder of how intractable the homeless problem in downtown remains despite all the progress.

The census showed the first major increase in months in homeless people camping, to 921.

As always you can see the population change on Cartifact's Downtown Homeless Map.

It would seem to be a little naive to believe that the numbers were always going to trend downward. The problem is far too complex for that. As the article notes, 2000 beds in winter shelters closed March 15th, leaving some number of individuals to find their way back to Downtown.

It's also true that progress on Skid Row is not simply a factor of the numbers. The major focus of LAPD's efforts have been to wipe out the drug market. An increase in population doesn't necessarily say anything about how that fight is going. If someone's celebration was doused by this uptick they need to take a closer look at what it is they're cheering for.

More after the jump...

Many people have asked me about the methodology of the counts, and whether I believe them to be accurate. The piece includes two quotes on that subject that I simply have to address here.

Critics have long questioned the methodology of the LAPD's count.

Jennifer Wolch, a USC professor of geography who has studied homelessness, said it is difficult for anyone to count the homeless — but even harder with uniformed police officers, who as law enforcement officials may engender fear or suspicion. "These counts, no matter who takes them, are typically flawed," Wolch said. There are "a lot of places for people to evaporate."

I'll accept that some number of homeless people find crazy little nooks to sleep in that LAPD might not find. I can't buy the idea, though, that people siting on the sidewalk think to themselves "Hmm, it's the first of the month. I better go find a place to hide so the officer doesn't wake me to count me tonight."

So while it's almost certainly true that the count doesn't find every single individual, I seriously doubt that the percentage of those sleeping outside but not found has risen.

This one's my favorite, though:

Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said she was "very surprised to hear the population is up in skid row overnight."

... Ripston also wondered what effect a reporter's presence on the count may have had. "They may have been more accurate because you were ... along," she said.

Sure... A reporter rides along with one of the seven teams of officers counting Downtown and causes everyone to open their eyes and find a couple hundred people they had previously missed. I can't see myself buying that one either.

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