Jan 8, 2021 - Economy

Big cities call off 2021 homeless counts due to pandemic safety

A boy sitting under a COVID-19 shadow. Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and other cities are canceling or postponing their "point in time" censuses of unsheltered homeless people — which typically take place on a single night in late January — saying the pandemic makes it unsafe for all involved.

Why it matters: Empirically, the number of homeless people has swelled because of COVID-19, and the annual or biennial tally is a way to hold public officials accountable.

Driving the news: The Department of Housing and Urban Development — which requires communities to hold point-in-time homeless counts every two years, and uses the results to allocate funding — issued COVID-19 guidelines that allow communities to get an exemption this year.

  • The "count" involves thousands of volunteers fanning out to conduct face-to-face interviews with people on the streets; coronavirus adds an incalculable degree of difficulty.
  • The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said “there is no safe way to gather the 8,000 volunteers necessary” to do the job, which last year involved tallying more than 66,000 people, per the Santa Monica Daily Press.
  • A spokesperson for HUD tells Axios that "several cities have canceled the unsheltered count" but "we do not have specific numbers on how many cities have canceled."
  • Cities won't be financially penalized as long as they fulfill their requirements later on.

State of play: While some online hecklers expressed cynicism that the delays were a way for public officials to cover up rising numbers, homelessness experts don't think that's the case.

  • "It's understandable and prudent to do these kinds of modifications or delays," Linda Gibbs, a principal at Bloomberg Associates and former deputy mayor for health and human services in New York City, tells Axios.
  • Some places — like NYC and Pittsburgh — are going ahead with modified counts, extending the process over several nights and using trained professionals rather than volunteers, Gibbs said.

The bottom line: The January "count" is just a snapshot — albeit an important one — and even places that won't be doing the full exercise this year are taking careful note of the number of people in shelters and hotels.

  • "Hopefully, this is just a one-year interruption," Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told me.
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