In Closed Session

Answer me this — are there more homeless people in Long Beach than there were a year ago?

That's a tougher question than you might think. The very definition of homelessness — transient, without a place — makes it difficult to get an accurate count.

But the government tries. Long Beach tries. And that's not just because the number of homeless people is tied directly to the amount of money the city receives to provide services to that population. The experts really do want to know who the homeless are and how many people need help.

Which leads to what's called the Point In Time homeless count. Results of the count taken in January were released Tuesday, and, comparing the numbers to counts taken in 2017, 2015 and 2013, the homeless population in Long Beach has leveled off at around 2,000 people.

Assuming the accuracy of the counts, that's actually sort of bad news — in the last couple of counts, the number of homeless people had declined. In 2013, the tally was 2,847 people, almost a thousand more than this year's 1,894 total.

But compared to 2017, the number has risen just a bit. Two years ago, the final count was 1,863.

You statisticians out there know that difference is essentially zero — quick, someone get the calculator out and tell me what percentage 31 is of 1,894. I'm no mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that's less than 2 percent; within the margin of error, if you will.

But I can already hear the grumbling. Plenty of people will claim the city must be deliberately messing with the numbers — everyone can see there are more homeless people than ever. Just walk down Pine Avenue downtown, or Second Street in the Shore.

That's a perception that's hard to shake. Street people are hard to miss, and have a tendency to disrupt what we envision our life should be.

My friends in city government trying to help homeless people find shelter are past tired of hearing me say it, but perception is reality. Trying to convince the majority of the city's residents that the fight against homelessness is making a difference has about as much chance of success as me winning the lottery.

Perceptions aside, facts are facts. I side with the city's experts on this one.

This count is called a point in time because it is just that — a snapshot of what people could find in late January. Long Beach's homeless population ebbs and flows, depending on everything from the weather to the economy to the price and availability of apartments.

Here are a couple of numbers that feed the perception homelessness is growing. A third of the total, 632 people, are classified as chronically, or long-term, homeless, with 60 percent of the homeless on the street for more than a year. For nearly half the homeless population, this is not the first time they have been homeless. And here's the biggie — of the 1,131 people who admitted they have been asked to accept services or shelter, only 593 agreed to literally come in from the cold.

There are lots of other interesting, important facts in the count results — 24 percent of those surveyed have substance abuse problems, 34 percent have mental health issues, etc. The details will help inform the experts and allow them to tweak the ways they fight homelessness.

What the numbers can't address is the perception that homelessness is a growing issue. And Long Beach has a fairly unique problem here.

There no longer is one area of the city where most of the visible homeless street people congregate. Instead, they have spread out through much of the city. Other Southern California cities have places like Skid Row or tent cities that attract people. At one time, Lincoln Park downtown was that kind of magnet, but it is no more, and city leaders public and private have vowed to make sure the new Lincoln Park doesn't become that congregation point again.

County figures and counts in other cities were released Tuesday as well, and Long Beach is doing comparatively well. That's small solace when you realize nearly 2,000 people will be homeless in Long Beach tonight.

Still, these numbers will help continue the fight to reduce that population. And that is a good thing. So let's get to it.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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