Cloaked in sweaters, down jackets and hats, we huddle in a room in L.A. City Councilman David Ryu’s district office on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks to get instructions before heading out into the cold night to look for homeless people. We are part of the army of thousands of volunteers who signed up for the annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, which takes place over the course of three consecutive nights across L.A. County — and is required to get federal funding for homelessness services.
“If I was sleeping outside, where would I be?” we were advised to ask ourselves. Check under overpasses and in parking lots. Look for people wearing lots of layers of clothing. They may be limping, coughing or have disheveled hair. Look for tents and makeshift shelters. And respect the privacy of the people you are counting. Don’t lift up the flap of a tent. Don’t stare at them like “they’re in the zoo,” says one of the site coordinators, Michael Binkow.
“Since we’re all wearing multiple layers, do we count as homeless?” a volunteer asks. We all laugh, but he was kind of on to something. How do you know if someone is homeless?
I’ve agonized over that question for all the years I’ve participated in the homeless count. This was my fifth year. Turns out it doesn’t get any easier to make that call.
We are split into teams, and my two teammates are also veterans of the count. Kinette Cager is the director of human resources and administration for A Community of Friends, a respected developer of housing for homeless people. Her husband, John, is the senior pastor at Ward AME Church, north of USC. They live in Sherman Oaks, not far from where we are counting.
We climb into their car and before we leave, John dictates a social media post to his church about why he is doing the count: “I know what it’s like to have been homeless. I was fortunate that my homelessness meant that I was couch surfing with family and friends. I never had to be out on the street or under a freeway overpass or anything. But you have to remember our savior, Jesus, didn’t have a place to lay his head, and he was able to do God’s will. Let us remember that for our brothers and sisters who are out there, in the cold, in the elements, in the weather, that they are people, they deserve to be treated with dignity and they deserve our love.”
We drive down Ventura, past a motorcycle shop, a bridal shop, restaurants. A guy in T-shirt and jeans with some kind of shopping cart? Too neat-looking. Two women standing near a trash can in a parking lot — are they disheveled homeless women?
“No, they’re drunk,” says John. “They’re partying.” Indeed, they’re outside a bar. But what about the young man with a backpack standing outside the 7-Eleven in another strip mall? He seems to be going nowhere. We pull into the parking lot and drive slowly toward him for a better look. Sorry, but we’re breaking the no-staring edict. I begin to think he’s not homeless and worry he will pull out a gun and shoot us, telling the police later that he felt threatened by an SUV full of people driving toward him. But he ignores us, and we drive away.
The census tract we are assigned is bordered by strip malls and shops and full of residential blocks of houses and neatly landscaped apartment buildings. We are highly attuned to any sign of human movement. The woman cloaked in a blanket trudging through an apartment courtyard stops to tend to plants -- outside her own apartment, we assume. We drive into dead-end streets. A tarp over what looks like a mound of dirt is just a tarp over a mound of dirt.
Even dilapidated vehicles—so often a dead giveaway as dwellings for homeless people — aren’t a sure sign. An RV with blankets pulled over the windows seems to fit the bill. Kinette, our official counter, puts it down on our tally sheet. But an ancient Studebaker partially covered with a tarp? John says that’s some collector’s trophy. “Someone’s hoping they can turn that over,” he says.
We drive past the L.A. River. “L.A.’s biggest sin? Putting concrete in the river,” John says.
A shabby beige Honda in a parking lot with a flat tire, filled with bags and boxes, gets noted as a vehicle for someone homeless.
And then there is the bright blue bus parked on a street. We can see that it, too, is filled with boxes. We get out of the car, venture toward it, look at it, confer and then put it down as a homeless vehicle.
But is it? As in past years, I worry that people out there, like me, are making subjective judgments that are simply wrong. Maybe we are over-counting. Maybe we are undercounting. (Maybe the guy outside the 7-Eleven with the imaginary gun really is homeless.) The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority believes that, year over year, this has been an effective method. The actual count that will be announced in May or June combines the raw numbers — that we helped collect — with results from a detailed survey of thousands of homeless people that professionals do for LAHSA.
It’s truly uplifting to know that thousands of people come out on three cold nights to count homeless people, to really see them. I just wonder how accurately we actually see.