Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority

The number of people experiencing homelessness in the City of Malibu as of this past January was 154—no one seems to be arguing that figure. But why that number appears to be more than 400 percent higher than last year’s number is still being disputed.

This January marked the fourth year the city participated in the county’s annual homeless count, which is coordinated county-wide by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and locally by a volunteer force headed by Realtor Bianca Torrence. Members of the sheriff’s department and state parks conduct the counts in remote canyon areas.

In the past, LAHSA included various unincorporated areas of the Santa Monica Mountains in its homeless numbers for Malibu, based on the boundaries of the 90265 zip code and LAHSA Service Planning Area Five. 

This year, Public Safety Manager Susan Dueñas, who has been in charge of the city’s new homeless programs since 2017, asked LAHSA to provide homeless count numbers just for the city limits of Malibu—Malibu’s 21 miles of coast. So, LAHSA revised the Malibu numbers for all four years—2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019—and republished them on June 15. However, the city-limits number they came up with for 2018—30—is a substantial outlier. That is what continues to be disputed, and it is why the city still has not released official counts.

“[LAHSA is] scrambling to figure it out,” Dueñas said in a recent phone interview with The Malibu Times. “We want to see their raw data, and they say they never show that to anyone. We don’t understand why, because it doesn’t include any personal information. They’re just not responding, and it’s getting super irritating.”

Dueñas said the statistics would not be helpful to the city if the numbers are so far from accurate.

“We don’t want a 400 percent increase in homelessness since last year reflected in those numbers,” she added. “We’re investing so much money; we want a better measuring stick of results and our efforts, so we can see an impact. We just want the numbers to be realistic.”  

As far as this year’s count of 154, Duenas said it seems high, but she was willing to believe that number, because the homeless count took place just over two months after the Woolsey Fire. She said, based on information from her outreach team, that a number of residents displaced by the fire were still living in their vehicles at the time of the count. 

“People need to remember this is just a point-in-time count, which is done while it’s still dark outside, and it’s often done by volunteers just driving by in their vehicles. Not everyone present is seen by the volunteers,” Dueñas said. “And the volunteers have to make a judgment call as to whether someone is living in their vehicle or not. ‘Does it look like they have all their belongings in there?’”

Malibu’s outreach team, which currently consists of two full-times employees contracted through The People Concern, has been placed 42 people in homes since January 2017. Of those, 15 were housed since July 1, 2018.  

The county gave Malibu 19 extra housing vouchers after the Woolsey Fire to help homeless fire victims, and most are still waiting to find landlords who will accept them. Unfortunately, the vouchers have expiration dates, and it can be a race against time to find rental units that will take those vouchers because of the LA area’s high-priced housing market. According to RentCafe, the average rent for an apartment in Los Angeles is $2,384, a six percent increase over last year; the average size of an apartment is 786 square feet.

Dueñas aims to help solve this problem by bringing in a full-time “housing navigator” to locate regional housing that will accept the vouchers. The salary will be paid for by grants. 

“It’s a done deal,” Dueñas said. “It just needs final approval from the city council.”

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