Larry Watts, an attorney, steers his BMW off Sunset Boulevard and onto private Evans Road in Brentwood. In the front seat next to him sits Chip Tardif, a retired fire captain and paramedic, with a clipboard. I sit in the back with a flashlight. It’s the second night of the Los Angeles County homelessness count and, as volunteers, our mission is to do a visual survey of any homeless people we find sleeping on a sidewalk or doorway or park or hunkered down in a vehicle.
There’s no question that there are homeless people in Brentwood. There are busy streets here, densely lined with apartment buildings and condos and businesses, where homeless people sleep or park their RVs. But the census tract to which we have been assigned is the rarified Brentwood of hillsides and horse paddocks, rambling houses ablaze with lights and others set so far back behind gates that they are invisible in the black of the night.
Watts knows these enclaves well. We meander the streets of the Brentwood Riviera. “That’s Steven Spielberg’s house,” he says as we pass a gate and crane our necks for a glimpse of nothing but darkness. Watts is chairman of the Brentwood Community Council and gets involved in issues facing the community. “The plight of the homeless is certainly one of them.” This is his second year volunteering for the count.
“I lived in my car for a year when I was at UCLA,” Tardif says. He did it to save money on housing. “It was more of a choice.” As a paramedic, he spent years talking with and treating homeless people he met on the streets, some of them so frequently that he could tell who was calling for help before the call was answered. “Some areas I could tell you who was calling by the pay phone they were calling from.”
After an hour and a half, we spot zero homeless people and one skunk.
“We didn’t find anyone last year either,” Watts says.
That doesn’t mean our foray was wasted. It’s as important to know where homeless people are as where they are not.