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How do you know who's homeless?

How do you know who's homeless?
Ava Gempler, left, Victoria Covarrubias and Claudia Chaparro out on the 2016 homeless count in East L.A. (Carla Hall)

First rule of going out on the homeless count: come back. Being dispatched from a deployment center as a counter for the 2016 Los Angeles County homeless count is a little like scuba diving off a boat. If you don't return and check in, people get worried and go looking for you.

On the first night of the count in East Los Angeles, 41 people sit in the Centro Maravilla Service Center clutching — or wearing — their souvenir T-shirts and getting instructions: This is a visual count. Don't try to engage with someone homeless. Although if a homeless person engages you, give him or her a referral card with information on services.

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And if you're not engaging, how do you know, for sure, that someone is homeless? Someone stumbling down the street looking disheveled is not necessarily homeless. "This could be a person walking back from a bar who's having a bad night," Jonathan Hans, a regional coordinator for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, tells the room of volunteers. Instead, he says to look for some combination of things: sleeping or lying on the ground or a bench, poor physical condition, weathered skin, wearing layers of clothing.

Someone stumbling down the street looking disheveled is not necessarily homeless.


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And how do you know someone is living in a vehicle? (Volunteers are warned not to shine their flashlights into a car to look for someone inside.) Look for a vehicle in disrepair — maybe parked by other such vehicles. RVs with blankets on the windows, cars packed with belongings are other tipoffs.

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"I know you guys are excited, you want to make a difference, but what if you go to a census tract and there are no homeless people?" Hans says. "That's a good thing. It's as important to know where homeless people are as where they are not."

He offers another rule of counting as if it's a mantra: "Zero is a valid number."

Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Sgt. Anna Diviak offers some safety tips. "If you see any weapons, stop. Back off."

Got it.

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The volunteers are split up into teams of three and four. Some live in the area and see it as a way to contribute to the community, some are students at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. Claudia Chaparro works for the Department of Social Services and volunteers regularly. She grew up in East L.A. and still lives here. She teams up with her sister, Victoria Covarrubias, a nurse intern, and Ava Gempler, an 18-year-old Occidental freshman from Yakima, Wash.

"We have a few homeless people we see all the time," says Chaparro.  "But I've never dug any deeper. That's why this is important."

I tag along to see what it's like to go out into the night and figure out who is homeless.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

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