How the homeless count is going high-tech

From thermal imaging to tailored questionnaires, Southern California counties are innovating how to better quantify and understand local homeless populations.

Around the region, annual and biannual homeless counts kick off this week. Thousands of volunteers are expected to canvass streets, shelters, ravines, underpasses and riverbeds throughout the county to talk to homeless people and count the total number.

The tallies, which are submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, form a basis for receiving federal aid to address housing needs. They also present an opportunity for local governments to better assess who’s living on local streets.

This time around, counties are making some changes.

In preparation for the count, Orange County sent workers up in O.C. Sheriff’s Department helicopters, equipped with thermal imaging devices, to sweep over out-of-the-way places where homeless people might be sleeping so that volunteers know to go back to those areas during the count.

In 2015, volunteers tallied an estimated 15,291 homeless in Orange County, but the number may be larger.

“You’ve got rivers, you’ve got ravines, you’ve got state parks, you’ve got hills, you’ve got a lot of different things, and we just wanted to make sure that we were identifying where everybody was sleeping,” said Karen Williams, president and CEO of 2-1-1 Orange County, the non-profit tasked with running the census.

O.C. is also switching from paper to tablets this year.

“That should make a difference in terms of how quickly we can get the information,” she said. This year’s information will include specific data by city, as opposed to merely a county total.

In Los Angeles, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority will incorporate a new demographic into this year’s count—people staying in institutions like hospitals, jails and juvenile detention centers who are due for release soon and have nowhere to go.

Last year’s count tallied about 47,000 homeless in L.A. county. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials say roughly 3,000 jail inmates identify as homeless.

“Intuitively, we know it’s increasing,” said Captain Paula Tokar of LASD’s Population Management Bureau. Counting homeless behind bars is a relatively new task for the jails, brought on by a desire to connect departing inmates with services as they leave.

Other changes to L.A.’s count are also aimed at improving the quality of the county’s data.

Volunteers will expand demographic questions they ask the homeless. This year’s survey will include a category for those who identify as transgender or do not identify as any one gender. There will also be expanded questions regarding whether an individual has experienced domestic violence.

“We’ve also added a question for single adults: whether their pet ownership has been a barrier to them accessing shelter,” said Josh Decell, associate director for data integration at LAHSA.

L.A. is still seeking volunteers to help with the three-day count, which begins Tuesday. Other counties, Riverside, do a single-night count, which will take place Jan. 24. San Bernardino’s is Jan. 26. And Orange County’s is Jan. 28.