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Adventures on the homeless count — does that van belong to a homeless person or a trust-fund surfer?

Adventures on the homeless count — does that van belong to a homeless person or a trust-fund surfer?
Volunteers Kathy Creighton, left, and her husband, Ken Creighton, are joined by Kamara Shephard as they figure out directions on a map of San Pedro during L.A. County's homeless count Wednesday. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times) (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

We have just begun our night counting homeless people in Mar Vista when we do something a little creepy.

Kate Torri, at the wheel of her car, drives our three-person team slowly past a hulking RV parked on Wade Street. We stop in the quiet residential street, then back up and pull alongside for a closer look. We stare at the vehicle. Not what you would normally do at night on a dark street. But we had to get a closer look. As I discovered last year when I went on the Los Angeles County annual homeless count and the year before that when I did the count, it can be remarkably difficult to figure out if a dilapidated van is just a dilapidated van — or the desperate makeshift home of a homeless person or family.

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At the Mar Vista Recreational Center, where at least 60 volunteers had gathered Wednesday night before being sent off in teams to canvas specific census tracts, we had been told to count not just people but tents and vehicles even if we saw no people inside them. The key was to look for signs that someone might be living in a vehicle — lots of belongings inside or coverings on the windows.

"I can see a lot of bags in the cab," Torri says. We make a decision. Sitting in the back, I check one RV on the tally sheet. Riding in the front passenger seat is a volunteer who showed up in a cheery version of the pink knit "pussy" hat. (She said I could use her last name and an initial for her first, but I'm going to do her one better and not name her at all.) She is our navigator with the map of our assigned census tract.

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A couple of blocks later, we drive by another motor home. It is shabby with dark curtains on the windows. I count another RV on the tally sheet.

On another block, we pass a coral-colored VW bus. "What about that?" Torri asks.

"Noooo," the navigator says. "That costs a fortune. That's a yuppy surfer on a trust fund."

Torri, an actress who lives in Cheviot Hills, decided to go on the count, she says, because, "I have a soft spot in my heart for homeless people." She adds that she'd like to see the homelessness situation in Los Angeles better handled.

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Thousands of similarly concerned people volunteered for the count, which is organized and run by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority across the county over three nights this week. They bring different experiences to the tally. "I've been doing this for five years, and the problem seems to be getting worse," says the navigator, who lives in nearby Palms and worries about homeless people living in motor homes dumping their waste in street drains. "Where's the money going?"

Well, the problem is worse. Homelessness rose in the county in 2017 to 58,000 — a 23% from 2016. The money from city and county measures that will finance housing and services is only beginning to be spent. We want the pace for housing, in particular, to speed up. Otherwise we are never going to get 10,000 desperately needed units built over the next decade.

But there's no shortage of people willing to count. Last year there were nearly 8000 volunteers. This year, the homeless authority expected 8,500. With that kind of manpower, the agency can dispatch people to count, literally, every block in the county. That doesn't mean it's a perfect count. It can't possibly be. (What if we were wrong about those two RVs? What if we were wrong about the RVs that we saw but did not put down on the tally sheet?) And even if it were a perfect count, it would be only a perfect count of the people who were homeless on the nights of Jan. 23-25 this year. In fact, the number of people who are homeless ebbs and flows throughout the year. However, L.A. County and every jurisdiction that gets federal funding for programs for the homeless must do this count and submit the results. I wish that there were a more clinical way to do the tally. But I think it's an important civic exercise for people to get out at night, when it's cold, and really look at homeless people out there living in the cold.

We return to the recreation center having tallied just five RVs. We saw no actual homeless person. Part of that was because of our assigned census tract — it was mostly homes and small apartment buildings. Apparently, people sometimes return from the count dejected that they didn't find any homeless people — as if this were a kind of perverse Pokemon Go game.

The important thing is simply to look everywhere. "Many people come back and say, 'Oh, we didn't find anyone,'" Ian Costello, from the homeless authority, told us before we all went out. "That's a good thing! You don't have to be disappointed."

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