Count: The count was suspended this year due to Covid concerns but will resume in 2022. Courtesy photo

After a one year hiatus due to the pandemic, Santa Monica’s annual homeless count will take place again on Jan. 26 and provide invaluable information to help guide the City’s homelessness response. 

As Santa Monica community members set out at midnight with clipboards in hand, thousands of Angelenos will be doing the same to create a tally of individuals experiencing homelessness across the County. 

The count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and regionally overseen by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). 

At a local level this data is used to understand the number of unhoused individuals in the city, the type of shelter they are utilizing (car, tent, open air) and where they are located. This in turn drives the distribution of resources and signals to the city if more outreach needs to be deployed to certain areas. 

“When we saw a large increase on the beach, for example, we really spent the year (2019) working with our nonprofit partners that do outreach and with our Santa Monica Police Department homeless liaison team to coordinate outreach and engagement in that area, which reduced the number of people experiencing homelessness on the beach in the next year (2020),” said Maggie Willis, Human Services Administrator, Community Services.

The upcoming count is especially important given the dearth of 2021 data and general trends of increasing homelessness seen across Los Angeles during the pandemic. 

The 2022 count will also look a little different.

Keeping Covid-19 precautions in mind the training will be done virtually by video. On the night of the count materials will be distributed in a drive-up format.

Typically teams of three to four travel by car to their designated count location, so this year people are strongly encouraged to form their teams in advance to ensure they are comfortable sharing a car together. Individual volunteers are still welcome to participate, but will be assigned team members and asked to drive separately. 

“We know people are tired and we know it’s the middle of the night and we noticed there’s a lot of nervousness about what the winter might bring in terms of another surge or not,” said Willis. “We just want to assure people that we’re going to take all the steps we can to make sure that we do this in a way that’s safe and adheres to the best public health standards.”

Santa Monica has been leading the way by running its own homeless count since 2009 and developed several strategies that have now been recognized and adopted by the County as best practices.

One of these is noting the geographic location of each individual or encampment or car sheltering an individual. This provides a helpful data point beyond just a total number as it allows local communities to better understand their unhoused communities and where to direct assistance. 

Seeing the success of Santa Monica’s locally run count, LAHSA now asks other cities to opt-in and do the same. 

According to Willis, there are a number of benefits to locally run counts. 

“Because it is their community going out and counting… that community has a much higher threshold of trust in what the numbers look like, and it has been a really positive change in the way that the County has done the count,” said Willis. 

This also allows communities to adapt the manner in which they conduct their count to the nuances of their local unhoused community. 

For example, in Santa Monica there are many unhoused individuals who transit through the city during the day but do not necessarily live here at night. This is why the local count begins around midnight, a couple hours later than other counts, in order to more accurately capture homeless individuals living in Santa Monica. 

The last key benefit is the manner in which it rallies the community around the shared problem of homelessness. 

“When you spend time with your neighbors in your community to do this event to do this work, it carries through the year and helps people feel connected to the issue in a very tangible real way,” said Willis. “I cannot understate how important it is that the community comes together.”

Willis strongly encourages all residents to volunteer for the upcoming count and to visit  www.santamonica.gov/santa-monica-homeless-count for more information and registration details. 

Clara@smdp.com