Where did they go?
Even in communities like Venice and Santa Monica, where the homeless are normally so visible, the counters often outnumbered the counted Tuesday night during the nation's first official census of homeless Americans.
There were 13 homeless people at the National Guard Armory in West Los Angeles when 16 census workers, wearing white paper vests and carrying red, white and blue plastic briefcases, showed up to count them.
"Sunday night we had a hundred people," said National Guard Major Jeff Kramer, who administers the armory. "Yesterday we had 58. Today we have 13."
Kramer speculated that the poor turnout at the armory, which is normally opened to the homeless only when temperatures dip, was the result of Tuesday's mild weather and the fact that agenda of the homeless may be different from the government's.
"Homeless people have their own program, which may or may not agree with the desires and needs of the Establishment," Kramer said. "It's nice out there tonight. Would you rather sleep outside, when it's warm with a nice breeze, or in a stuffy room on a cot and being told what time the lights go out?"
For whatever reasons, "enumerators," as the counters were officially called, often found fewer homeless than anticipated on the streets and at Westside locations pre-selected for the count.
Working under a crescent moon, three enumerators in Venice shined their flashlights behind dumpsters, under cars and behind bushes as they worked near the upscale Main Street shopping district. One of the 13 people they encountered was a 40-year-old woman with a pole slung over her shoulder, who dragged a shopping cart through an alley. The woman, however, said she was not homeless. Interviewed in Spanish, she said she rummages through dumpsters at night to find cans and bottles to recycle to help feed her six children.
Ten years ago, when the last United States census was conducted, the homeless were not sufficiently numerous to warrant a separate count. This first official survey of Americans who live in shelters, in cars and on the streets and beaches was a long night characterized by small numbers of homeless, bureaucratic snafus and varying degrees of cooperation on the part of those who were being counted.
A 30-year-old veteran, who asked not to be identified, was one of the first to show up at the West Los Angeles armory. Neatly dressed in jeans and a Members Only jacket, he said he had been promoting participation in the census to other homeless people at feeding programs and in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, where he and his wife usually pitch their tent.
"They need to know how many there are of us so those of us who want to get off the streets can get the help we need," he said.
The man, who came to Los Angeles from Florida in October, said he had worked for an agency that provided relief for the homeless until it lost its funding and was disbanded.
He predicted that the census would fail to produce an accurate count. Many of the homeless distrust the government, he said, and, despite official assurances that all information collected would be confidential, some would rather go into hiding than participate.
"They think it's going to be turned over to the police," he said of census data. "A lot of them are scared."
Some of the homeless and their advocates were not so much scared as angry about the count. Randy Kling, 35, who said he had recently got a job as a house painter and was trying to bootstrap himself out of homelessness, surveyed the unusually small crowd at the Culver City armory, where 15 counters arrived to find only 10 homeless. "From what I see here, it's fixed," Kling said.
Others were distressed that federal funds were available for an official count but not to help the homeless. At the West Los Angeles armory, John Suggs, executive director of the countywide Coalition for the Homeless, pointed out that local shelters are normally closed, but "when the government needs them open to count the homeless, then they open."
A homeless man in Santa Monica's Memorial Park, who declined to give his name, described the process as "a game." "What's in it for me?" he asked. "The government ain't gonna do nothing for us anyway."
More than 380 enumerators, including an estimated 50 homeless, canvassed the Westside through the night, working in groups of three to five. All did not go smoothly. Four enumerators showed up in Memorial Park to count the 130 people who gathered there for a hot meal and a cot for the night, but they forgot to bring pencils.
Sometimes the enumerators simply didn't go to the places where the homeless were. No counters were present when the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition distributed soup and sandwiches to some 150 homeless men, women and children at the coalition's temporary feeding site on the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Romaine Street.
"If they were serious about counting us, they would be here, " said a 30-year-old man who identified himself only as Archie. West Hollywood officials said they had notified the census takers of the meal program.
Ted Landreth, a spokesman for the food coalition, saw the absence of census takers at the food giveaway as a bad sign. "It's obvious that the effort to count the homeless is doomed to failure. If the people of a known program . . . can't be found and counted, then imagine how many others who are far less obvious to find are going to be missed. Multiply that 150 by 10 major cities and 20 minor ones and suddenly you have a lot of people who are not being counted."
Some enumerators said they were frustrated by the small numbers of homeless they found. Thomas Woolsey went to a motel on Hollywood Boulevard where 10 rooms are put aside for the homeless, but found none.
"We did all of the training and went over there for nothing," Woolsey said. "They've got tourists and out-of-towners, but we don't count them."
The homeless simply weren't around, said enumerator John Bojanac, 19. "We found three of them, even though we went all over. And nobody wanted to talk."
Predictably, the homeless were least evident in the communities that provide little or no services for them.
Heidi Escalante headed the census team that visited the parks of Beverly Hills, for example. She found a total of two down-and-outers.
Neither could provide Escalante's group with census data. The man in Beverly Gardens, which runs alongside Santa Monica Boulevard, was asleep and could not be disturbed according to census rules. The man in Roxbury Park, where the Beverly Hills Croquet Club plays, fled when he saw the official counters. Escalante said she was glad she was being paid by the hour ($8.50 for heading the census crew, plus 20% for working at night; crew members made $7.50). "If they were paying by the head," she said, "I'd go straight downtown."
Not everyone on the streets was homeless. Counters approached two men walking in Palisades Park, only to discover one was an engineering student at Cal State Long Beach, the other a bond broker, killing time until his office opened a 4 o'clock in the morning.
Some of the people on the street were members of the media. Concerned about confidentiality, census officials had told reporters before the count that they could not listen in when enumerators asked the homeless their ages, sex and other census data.
Some enumerators shunned the press altogether. One was amazed when a reporter approached a group of census takers meeting in the middle of the night at a Denny's restaurant in Hollywood. "This is all very, very top secret," enumerator Byron Dickson said. "I don't know how you guys found out we were here."
Despite the frustrations, some counters thought of the nightlong count as a kind of mission. Enumerator Ruben Barrett, who described himself as a religious man, said he hoped the survey would result in help for the homeless.
He pointed out that Jesus Christ had been born in Bethlehem because the Romans had ordered the people of the Roman Empire to return to their birthplaces to be counted.
"They counted when Jesus was born," Barrett said. "If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for everybody else."