LA's homeless count is the nation's largest, and needs thousands of volunteers for 2017

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Los Angeles figures out how to allocate its resources for homeless service providers by doing a simple task that is also an enormous logistical challenge: a point-in-time headcount of all the homeless in the sprawling L.A. County.

That takes the help of thousands of community volunteers — 7,500 in 2016 —which they're hoping to pull in once again this year, L.A. Homeless Services Authority spokesperson Naomi Goldman told KPCC.

On the nights of Jan. 24-26, volunteers go out and physically count the homeless for the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. That street count is combined with a count of people in shelters, followed by deeper demographic surveys that are done later in the year. Those surveys add context including who these homeless are and what led to them becoming homeless, Goldman said. The information they collect is then used to allocate resources and programs to help make sure they serve the most needs.

It's the largest homeless count in the nation, Goldman said.

"We very much rely on community members to get involved. It's a safe, and easy, and meaningful way for people to get involved in the fight to end homelessness," Goldman said.

She added that no training is needed, as it's provided when volunteers show up to do the count. It takes a few hours from each volunteer. There are both walking teams and driving teams, following a pre-mapped census tract and a route showing how to systematically cover the area, Goldman said.

"They basically are going through a tally sheet, and have been given some instruction on how to count what they see," Goldman said. "Whether that's people on the streets, how to count when you see things like tents and encampments and vehicles, so that we can take all of that raw information back and give it to our research team at USC, who will crunch all of the numbers and be able to give us a really meaningful look at the state of homelessness throughout Los Angeles."

The process usually ends in May, Goldman said. It lets them look at homelessness by area, by city/county districts and by demographic groups, among others. They look for trends to see what's working and where resources are needed to focus on certain populations.

The 2016 count saw significant drops in homelessness among veterans and families, Goldman said.

"We saw that that was very much tied to having an increased investment in resources that focused on those populations," Goldman said. "So that does help us indicate where certain strategies and systems of care are working."

They also saw a rise in homelessness among women, which led to creating a new LAHSA committee focused on women. The data is used to work with communities and homeless service providers to make sure how they use their resources keeps pace with local trends, Goldman said.

Along with volunteers, this year's count is also utilizing what Goldman described as enhanced collaborations with city and county agencies that will provide more volunteers for the count. Law enforcement is also helping provide guidance, and will be going into areas deemed too dangerous for the general public, such as along riverbeds and in flood control channels.

Another new feature for the demographic survey portion of the count:Volunteers will be linking those homeless people to local services when they encounter them, Goldman said.

"You can help forge new community connections and let everyone know that everyone counts, no matter where they live. This is a really important opportunity, and need to put a face on our homeless neighbors," Goldman said.

If you want to sign up or found out more information, you can find it at TheyCountWillYou.org. The site takes you through the steps needed to sign up to count at a location near either you work or home, according to Goldman.

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