Biennial count in SH, LB to identify homeless people in region

LB official says the practice allows City to determine where to allocate resources to reduce transient issue, but local homeless feel like situation has not changed


Photos by Sebastian Echeverry

Pictured is Theresa Blackmon, a homeless woman who has lived in downtown Long Beach for more than five months, she told the Signal Tribune. In regard to the homeless situation in Long Beach’s downtown area– and her growing concern and claim about transients throughout Los Angeles County arriving via public transportation in the early morning and causing havoc– she said the situation is “an epidemic” and “a plague.”

Theresa Blackmon has only been a Long Beach resident for a little more than five months, but it’s enough time for her to conclude that her home in downtown is filled with people who “plague” the area with their aggressive behavior.

She calls the climate in downtown Long Beach an “epidemic.” Things might be easier, however, if she did indeed have a physical home, as her residency in Long Beach is merely indicated by her presence every day and night among her fellow homeless neighbors.

“I’ve been here for five months,” she told the Signal Tribune. “And one day too long.”

As homeless counts will be conducted in Los Angeles County this month, residents are reminded of Long Beach and Signal Hill’s ongoing homelessness situation.

Although initiatives have been put in place to assist homeless people, like Blackmon, to achieve proper housing, there are some individuals– some of them homeless and advocates for transients– that feel it’s not enough.

Marc Coleman, a downtown Long Beach lawyer, said he recently befriended Blackmon, as he sees her and other homeless people hang around the front of his building.

“Living on the streets is problematic for anybody, because of the unpredictable nature of who shows up when, the unprotected nature of their sleeping arrangements and, at this point, the very cold weather that we’re getting,” Coleman said in a phone interview this month. “[…] In the past, I believe the City has put up some portable bathrooms, even in the Promenade for homeless folks to use. But those are not there, so she’s told me she’s had to just go out into the alley and do her business out there– which she felt very demeaning to her, very inhuman to her in the middle of the night. Sometimes she doesn’t even make it over there.”

The Signal Tribune investigated the downtown Long Beach area twice– on Dec. 31 and Jan. 4 from around midnight to 3am– to not only observe the homeless climate and culture in the area, but to verify Blackmon’s claims during her interview about homeless individuals arriving late at night from throughout Los Angeles County– from about 11pm to 4am– and displaying aggressive behavior with local homeless folks.

Blackmon described her observations as “homeless dumping,” a perceived strategy to relocate Los Angeles homeless individuals to Long Beach.

“They are more radical,” Blackmon said of the individuals who exit the early-morning buses at the Downtown Long Beach Station. “They are destroying, hollering, breaking windows– they are chasing the people here down this track where the train goes.”

Added another homeless individual, Steve, who was near Blackmon during the interview: “They’re a rough crowd.”

Although the Signal Tribune did not verify or observe any suspicious activity during the two evening investigations, individuals, which included homeless people and bus-goers, offered their thoughts about the homeless issue.

Homeless individuals set camp at bus stops or in miscellaneous nooks and crannies throughout Signal Hill and Long Beach, as pictured in this photo on First Street, near Long Beach Boulevard, taken at around 3am on Friday, Jan. 4. The man in this photo said he did not want to be identified.

Eric Lindsey, who was boarding the Metro’s 60 bus toward Los Angeles Jan. 4 at around 3am, said the situation has “got worse over the years,” simply stating that he’s seen “a lot of people out here.”

Johnny May, a homeless Long Beach woman who was wrapped in bed sheets and praying at a bus stop that same early morning, said she was scared, adding that she feared for her safety.

Patrons get on a Metro bus at the Downtown Long Beach Station on the early morning of Friday, Jan. 4

“I was just getting scared,” she said. “[…] People need to see what’s really going on in this area. […] I don’t want to get too much into it, because I’ll start to cry about this area. I’m just trying to stay and pray and stay focused.”

A man who identified himself only as “Equinox” said he travels throughout the county on a consistent basis. At the time of the interview, he said his car, where he was living and utilizing for ride-share services to generate income, was stolen three days prior.

Coleman said that, although the homeless count might be the best method to identify the number of homeless individuals, it may not be productive in reducing the actual issue.

“Well, I look at the homeless count every year and, just from my observation, you know being in downtown as much as I am, I don’t think homelessness is going down,” Coleman said. “If anything, it seems to be increasing. But I don’t know if the numbers may bare that out. And the counting system that we use may be the best we can do, but I’m not sure it’s accurate in terms of who is actually here. It’s very hard to deal with population, but I do feel that it’s not diminishing, but probably growing.”

Despite concern and doubt from homeless individuals and some residents, homelessness has decreased in the city, per the 2017 City of Long Beach Point-In-Time Homeless Count results.

The City results show that, in 2013, there were 2,847 homeless individuals, followed by a decrease to 2,345 and 1,863 in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Previewing Long Beach, Signal Hill’s homeless counts
In a phone interview with the Signal Tribune on Friday, Jan. 11, Shannon Parker, the City of Long Beach’s homeless-services officer, said the city’s 2019 homeless count, slated for the early morning of Thursday, Jan. 24, will be the first step in transitioning to an annual count, as opposed to a biennial one in years past.

Instead of waiting until 2021 for the next round of identifying Long Beach’s displaced individuals, the City will be able to get accurate data on a yearly basis. Parker said the decision to change the frequency of the count was made sometime last year in May or June to mirror the way Los Angeles County conducts its procedure.

She added that Los Angeles County made a similar change a couple of years ago.

“We do a survey with each and every person that we encounter,” Parker said of the count. “So, LA County, the way they do it is a visual count. They don’t actually survey anybody on the data count. Now, they have a process in place in which they go back and extrapolate, and they do interview people. But the way we do our count is that each and every person we see out there that morning, if they’re willing, we do a survey with them.”

Parker explained that the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUDD) considers the four entities of Long Beach, Pasadena, Glendale and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) as “their own continuum of care.”

It’s HUDD that mandates a count be conducted every two years, but it doesn’t limit entities to limit themselves to that amount.

“We’ve had a really thorough, exhaustive count all the times we’ve been doing it every two years,” Parker said. “However, moving to an annual count will be very beneficial in a couple ways. It’s important for us to be able to look at what’s happening annually each and every year, because homelessness continues to be a topic of great importance for all of LA County and, frankly, for all of the nation. But to get the count annually will really help establish where we need to really prioritize how resources are being delegated out.”

As an example as to how accurate data from the homeless count has helped combat the issue of housing and displacement, Parker said identifying the number of homeless veterans or youth– utilizing data from 2015 and 2017– has been instrumental in, not necessarily introducing new programming, but helping officials generate answers to questions, such as “What do we know about youth homelessness and Long Beach in 2017? And how does that inform what we want to learn more about in 2019’s count?”

“And then we can really start having good conversations about how we prioritize resources and who participates in those resources around addressing youth who are experiencing homelessness,” Parker said.

In response to an inquiry about Long Beach’s significant downtown homeless problem, Parker said the City intends on creating a year-round homeless shelter with a target date of June 2020.

“Any urban city has a concentration [on] homeless that are in the downtown area, primarily, really, during the daytime– and then there’s certainly people down there at nighttime, too, but that is no different than any other urban city,” she said. “[…] There are multiple partners involved. The County of LA– the City is closely working with them to make the year-round shelter a reality. It’s actively being worked on as we speak.”

Parker said the project will garner funding through Measure H, a tax initiative that generates revenue for homeless services in the county, and the Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) program, a utility-payment plan that is offered statewide.

“However, we’re still working to locate a site,” she said, later adding her concluding thoughts about the homeless count. “[…] We were fortunate to have met our goal of 300 volunteers for the count, and we’re looking forward to having this be an annual event that gives us a snapshot of homelessness in Long Beach.”

Colleen Doan, City of Signal Hill planning manager, told the Signal Tribune Friday, Jan. 11, that the city’s homeless count, taking place a day before Long Beach’s on the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 23, will begin with a training/briefing of the counting strategy for residents at the Signal Hill City Hall Council Chamber.

After the orientation, residents will divide into groups of four and scope out different areas of the city in unmarked vehicles, which will be navigated by non-uniformed Signal Hill Police Department officers.

“[The officers] know where they’re going, and they’re safe and connected,” Doan said. “Then there are three additional people that ride in the car, one up front who has a duty of noting on the map that all of the areas for that particular car have been covered, and then there’s two in the backseat […], you know, one looking up left side, one looking out the right side, and noticing if they see individuals, groups, vehicles, tents or campsites that might be significant […].”

All the data for the homeless counts then gets passed onto a LAHSA representative for documentation.

Next week, the Signal Tribune will publish a continuation of this article, which will report on the results of next week’s Signal Hill and Long Beach homeless counts.