Almost 150 volunteers fanned across Burbank on Tuesday night, walking down alleys and peering behind train tracks to count homeless people in an effort to get a snapshot of an issue that has been deemed a growing crisis by some city officials.
Coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the count marked the launch of a three-day exercise throughout Los Angeles County that gives the public agency a comprehensive indication of how many homeless people are living in different parts of the county, allowing it to better direct its resources, including money and personnel.
Last year, the count found that nearly 58,000 homeless people were living in the county, with 7,459 of them in the San Fernando Valley.
“You’ve got to define an issue before you can get your arms around it,” said Brian Wren, a Burbank site coordinator. “It’s a big problem in Los Angeles, and we want to try to do our part to get it fixed and address it as much as possible.”
The count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order for the city to receive federal funding. Los Angeles has been participating in the national project since 2005.
For the past two years, the Burbank count has started at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center, where Wren works as a social services manager.
He said it was a natural fit because the hospital provides significant homeless services, including treating homeless people daily in the emergency room.
At around 8 p.m., a diverse group of volunteers from across the city met in a hospital conference room for a brief training session before heading out in small groups to explore about 30 census tracts determined by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
“There’s not much that I can do in my day-to-day life to help the homeless,” said Bronwyn Mauldin, a volunteer returning for her third count.
“If helping to get an accurate count of the number of people who are in the streets helps to ensure that they get the services they need, I feel like I’ve done my little bit for the cause,” Mauldin added.
Much of the Burbank count is conducted from cars, but some areas, such as parks and parking structures, have to be canvassed on foot.
Burbank natives Wen Li and James Velandria hopped out of a car to explore retail corridors off San Fernando Boulevard, where they said homeless people tend to congregate, play music and ask for change.
Volunteers were instructed not to interact with the people they were counting, but simply make tally marks based on the group’s collective judgment.
The groups also record other signs of homelessness, such as tents, encampments and cars that are being used as shelter. A separate survey is held by the homeless services authority to determine demographic information.
The entire count covers an area of almost 4,000 square miles that includes 2,160 census tracts. Tom Waldman, the authority’s communications director, said the project would be impossible without the thousands of volunteers who sign up to help.
This year, more than 8,200 people donated their time, which exceeds last year’s number by several thousand.
“The response of the community has been really tremendous,” Waldman said.
The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority employs a data research team that works in conjunction with researchers at USC to study the information collected.
The results of the 2018 count are expected to be released in late May.
Lila Seidman is a contributing writer to Times Community News.