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Column: Learning Matters: Images, questions prove profound during homeless count

What can we do about homelessness in Glendale? Many hope the results of the annual “point-in-time” homeless count will bring more funding to the problem — and maybe some new ideas.

This year, Glendale’s count fell on Jan. 22 and 23, Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

To clarify, the count is more than a simple head count. It’s a series of interviews with homeless individuals who agree to participate in a survey so the city can get more funding and provide better services.

Conducted by teams of volunteers, accompanied by city homeless services staff and a Glendale police officer dedicated to serving our homeless population, the survey includes 41 questions (only 32 if no children under the age of 18 accompany the individual).


Many of the questions were quite personal.

It was my third time volunteering for the night count and my second helping with a breakfast hosted at First United Methodist Church by the Sunday lunch program.

Area churches have been collaborating for nearly 25 years to provide a free Sunday meal to individuals in need, homeless or not.

Last year, the city asked if the group could host a breakfast to encourage more individuals to participate in the count.


The Tuesday night team on which I served — on a cold night that kept getting colder — completed 18 surveys over three and a half hours as we drove from one “high propensity” location to another. The next morning, I had the chance to interview several more individuals at the breakfast.

The city probably won’t announce the official count totals until spring, but our downtown area team encountered more individuals this year than we had in prior counts, and most of them readily obliged us with answers to our many questions.

We came across one young woman sitting in the dark, on the grass, looking out toward the street. When I asked where she’d slept the night before, she pointed to the building behind her and told me she’d slept by the door.

Glancing where she pointed, I saw another woman stretched out in a sleeping bag, but I heard no complaint about the other woman taking her spot.

Like several of the people we encountered, the young woman freely answered “yes” when I got to the question about mental illness: “Do you have a serious mental illness or emotional impairment that seriously limits your ability to live independently?”

“Oh, I’m psychotic,” came the matter-of-fact reply.

Others that night spoke of struggles with depression, anxiety or uncontrolled anger. One young man sitting on Brand Boulevard cited ADHD — or attention deficit hyperactive disorder — as a factor in his situation.

Some said they had medical care, others didn’t. We handed them cards listing available services, along with a blanket or jacket donated by a local business, and encouraged them to seek assistance.


One well-spoken young man hesitated to call himself homeless. He’d been out on the street only since the beginning of the week, and he could go to a relative’s home if he wanted. But he qualified for the count, so we proceeded.

To the “why did you become homeless?” question, he answered simply: “Gambling.”

I asked him if he’d read Dostoyevsky’s “The Gambler,” to which he smiled, and I handed him an invitation to breakfast. He and two of his friends came to breakfast the next morning. He gave me the impression he won’t be homeless long, but I hope he cuts down on the gambling.

An older man — closer to my age — recognized me from Sunday lunch and seemed to appreciate the chance to talk for a bit. When I got to the questions about the length of time he’d been homeless, he told me he was approaching his 10th anniversary on the streets.

He wasn’t proud of that, nor was he complaining. He said he was still looking for work. I told him the Verdugo Jobs Center has a program designed for homeless individuals, and it provides breakfast and transportation to work sites, but he didn’t express much interest.

The 80-year-old man living in his car remains, for me, the saddest of the night’s images, in part because he seemed so upbeat.

Living in a car qualifies as unsheltered for purposes of the survey, but sleeping on a friend’s couch or garage doesn’t.

This quiet and appreciative gentleman told me how he split his time between Glendale and another community, where he’d grown up, lived, and worked until he retired.


Eventually, he’d found that Social Security wasn’t enough to cover his rent. He answered “no” to the question about family living in Glendale. He knew of no living family members.

As reported in the Glendale News-Press (“City conducts homeless count, Jan. 26, 2019), “this year’s annual homeless count appeared to show an uptick in homeless seniors….”

And from what I’ve seen and heard at Sunday lunches over the years, many currently housed seniors worry about their next rent increase, and whether they’ll be part of the count next year.

I know the city is on the lookout for apartment owners willing to offer one or two of their units as low-income housing. Might you know of any?

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at