Malibu Homeless Count Number Hits Five-year High, Months Before Onset of COVID-19

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

In January 2020, Malibu participated for the fifth year in a row in LA County’s annual homeless count, coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).  A volunteer force of about two dozen people, including community members, city commissioners and public safety staff, as well as sheriff’s department and state parks personnel, fanned out in small groups across the 21 miles of Malibu to conduct the count.  The count took place before any impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though the count is conducted in January, LAHSA doesn’t normally release the results until the end of July. The number counted in Malibu in 2020 was the highest ever: 240. Since last year, the number was 154, this year’s tally marked a big jump in one year for a city this size. The increase was especially surprising considering the resources the city began putting into homeless services over three years ago:  two full-time outreach workers from the nonprofit People Concern have successfully placed many of Malibu’s homeless into permanent and temporary housing, and continue to do so.

The city’s public safety manager, Susan Dueñas, who has been in charge of Malibu’s homeless programs since 2017, including the city’s annual homeless count, weighed in on the count.

She explained that the federally mandated count provides data that helps various agencies plan for homeless services and housing needs in the communities, and helps the city track progress and adjust programs and policies, including Malibu’s Homelessness Strategic Plan.

Dueñas had several ideas about why the number went up so much. The first was that the methodology of the count changed somewhat.

“Our biggest jump was in the number of vehicles counted—RVs, campers and vans—compared to last year,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the vehicles counted by volunteers didn’t necessarily belong to homeless people, but it’s a judgment call.”

In addition, local residents may recall that last October, a new LA County parking restriction blocking overnight RV and camper parking between Coastline Drive and Topanga Canyon Boulevard caused many of the homeless living in those vehicles to pull up stakes and move up the road to PCH and Las Tunas Beach in Malibu. And many of them were still camped there for the homeless count on Jan. 22.

Another variable is LAHSA’s statistic for estimating the number of people living in an RV. The volunteer counters don’t walk up and look inside vehicles; they just report a vehicle if it looks like a homeless person is living in it. The county later applies its current estimate of the average number of people normally living in such a vehicle—“which is based on interviews not done in Malibu,” Dueñas emphasized.

Another mitigating factor was that Dueñas asked for the Malibu Homeless Count to start at a later time than in previous years. For the first four years, the count started at 5 a.m. when it was still dark outside. This was done to avoid double-counting people—at 5 a.m. most people, including the homeless, are still asleep and stationary. This year, the count started three hours later at 8 a.m., when it was light out. This meant the counters could see more, including homeless tents and makeshift shelters that they could not see the years it was still dark outside.

LAHSA’s summary for 2020 reported homelessness in the county increased by 12.7 percent over last year, for a total of 66,436 people, despite thousands moving into permanent and temporary housing, as well as shelters.

“This year’s count revealed that two-thirds of the unsheltered adults experiencing homelessness were homeless for the first time last year, and 59 percent of them cited economic hardship as the cause,” LAHSA reported. The homeless services authority also pointed out that high rents were a factor. “In Los Angeles, the median rent is 46.7 percent, or nearly half, of median income.”

In addition, the number of homeless seniors aged 62 and over rose 20 percent. And, as opposed to the popular local opinion that homeless people come to the LA area from somewhere else, they found that 80 percent of unsheltered homeless in LA County have lived here for more than five years and 66 percent became homeless while living here.