Editorial: Counting homeless people — and hoping to get the number right
We have ventured out into the night in Van Nuys armed with flashlights, clipboards, maps — and our best judgment — to count homeless people.
“Ok, I see two people in sleeping bags,” says a sharp-eyed counter as we stride past an office building with a little courtyard where homeless people have bivouacked. I make two hash marks on the tally sheet.
The annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count took place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. More than 7,700 volunteers — a record number — registered for it, according to officials of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which coordinates the count. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires such counts as a condition for receiving federal grants for homelessness programs, but the exercise is about more than just money. It’s also an essential tool for measuring the shifting homeless population and the progress we’ve made — or lost — in getting people off the streets.
On Tuesday night, I am part of a team with Cynthia Gonzalez, a Cal State Northridge junior; Ilyce Dawes, a retired legal consultant who does volunteer work full time, and Rd (pronounced like the initials R.D.) Plasschaert, who lives in the neighborhood and sees homeless people every day. “I wanted to make sure their bodies are counted,” she said.
Even when you are looking intently for homeless people, it’s remarkable how easy it is to miss them.
At our deployment center, coordinators assign us specific census tracts and give us instructions: Don’t shine your flashlight at anyone. Don’t approach homeless people to engage them. (We are supposed to count with our eyes only.) Don’t go up to a tent and pull up a flap to see who’s inside. Be respectful.
We start out on Van Nuys Boulevard near Victory, walking past a tattoo parlor, a restaurant, a barber shop. We pass a strip mall and see a woman slumped against a wall outside a shop. We count her. Plasschaert is our navigator and, with map in hand, she guides us down side streets, crisply calling out directions. We study parking lots and dumpsters, all in the shadow of Van Nuys City Hall, lighted ghostly white and towering in the near distance. We peer down an alley and see a profusion of carts and trash. Plasschaert is the first to zero in on the homeless people in the midst of all that.
“You know how I can tell where people are? I used to be homeless,” she says, surprising us all. Later she tells us, “I was serially homeless over five times in my life.”
We walk down residential streets, scanning bushes, driveways, vehicles. We see fog on the windows of several cars — one sign that people are living inside. Wait — that’s not fog, it’s frost.
We pass a red brick church where a homeless person has taken refuge in a doorway. We mark him down. As we round the corner where the church sits, Dawes points at a low brick wall along the side. I turn to look. On the other side of the wall, a homeless person is nestled in a side entryway. I’m annoyed at myself. How did I not see that person?
After all, homeless people are visible everywhere. As their ranks swelled in L.A. County — 47,000 by last year’s count — the percentage of makeshift shelters and tents on the streets rose dramatically.
Passersby often work hard to ignore them. Here I was trying hard to find them. Yet even when you are looking intently for homeless people, it’s remarkable how easy it is to miss them.
It made sense that many seek out the warmest, most secluded, safest places in an unsafe landscape and then practically mummify themselves there in blankets and sleeping bags to ward off the cold. Even in entryways that were lighted, some people were so completely covered that all I could make out was the form of a human and shoes.
We get in Dawes’ car to go to another census tract. We pass an encampment: a purple tarp-draped tent adjacent to a maroon tarp. Is the maroon tarp the side of another tent? Or part of the same tent? I’m not sure. We turn around and drive by again. And then a third time. We stop the car in the street. I say there’s just one tent, and brood all the way back to the deployment center about whether I was right.
Episodes like that make me wonder whether it would be better to leave this task to professionals. But there is something profoundly moving about thousands of volunteers choosing to go out into the streets over three nights to find the most vulnerable and cast-off people in our society — and make them count.
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