Santa Monica will not count its homeless population in 2021 after Los Angeles County canceled the annual event due to concerns over COVID-19 safety.

The federal government allowed Los Angeles County to cancel its 2021 homeless count in December over concerns that it can’t be done safely or accurately during the coronavirus epidemic.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority had sought permission to avoid sending thousands of volunteers out into the streets in January to check on the homeless. Congress requires such counts every two years and uses the information to distribute resources for homeless services.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted an exemption and will keep federal funding in place for now, LAHSA said in a statement.

LAHSA, a joint city and county authority, is the lead agency in coordinating $70 million in federal, state and local funding to help the homeless. In recent years, as homelessness has grown, the agency has done the count nearly every year over several days each January. Thousands of volunteers fan out to count tents, RVs and cars housing people throughout the region.

Last year’s count estimated the county’s homeless population at more than 66,000. Nearly three-quarters were living in makeshift shelters such as tents or cars.

However, LAHSA said “there is no safe way to gather the 8,000 volunteers necessary” to perform the required 2021 count safely and accurately because of COVID-19 curfews and stay-at-home orders across the region, along with a lack of planning and recruitment time and the possible difficulty of procuring COVID-19 safety equipment for the volunteers.

In a motion passed supporting LAHSA’s exemption request, the county Board of Supervisors said moving ahead with the count in the midst of the pandemic “would be a risky and challenging activity at best and a dangerous, superspreader event in the worst-case scenario, quickly infecting a high number of people with a very contagious and deadly disease.”

LAHSA still will count people living inside shelters and tally the number of beds and units available to homeless people through various government programs.

The 2020 homeless count, which was conducted in January, found 907 people experiencing homelessness in Santa Monica, down from 985 counted in 2019. About 600 were unsheltered and 300 were living in shelters or institutions. The number of people counted on the beach and in downtown Santa Monica decreased by 14% in 2020 following a 19% decrease the previous year.

The city’s homeless population grew by 3% in 2019 and 4% in 2018 after jumping 26% in 2017.

In contrast, the city and county of Los Angeles both recorded a roughly 13% increase in homelessness in the 2020 homeless count. More than 66,000 people were experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County in January, about 41,000 of whom were living in the city of Los Angeles.

In the past few years, Santa Monica officials have used data from the count to develop programs and strategies for fighting homelessness.

Recent efforts have been four-fold.

The first strategy has been to fund programs that prevent low-income residents from becoming homeless (such as the Preserving Our Diversity program to help seniors pay rent) and develop more affordable housing. The second is to address mental health and substance abuse issues by expanding the city’s outreach teams. Addressing homelessness in parks, beach and open spaces is the third effort while the fourth is to pursue more collaboration with agencies across the county to reduce homelessness in Santa Monica.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...