As the stars began to shine in the night sky Thursday, more than two dozen volunteers gathered around the table in the education room at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams neighborhood, eagerly waiting to hit the streets.
“We’re gonna get this done tonight, are we not?” said their site trainer Carolyn Fowler.
“Yes!” the group cheered.
The group was among the 5,000 volunteers who turned out in late January to participate in the 2013 Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s (LAHSA) biennial homeless count , which seeks to locate and count the men, women and children living in cars and tents, makeshift shelters or sleeping out in the open. During the four-day event, volunteers fanned out throughout Los Angeles County and covered more than 1,400 census tracts, making it the largest turnout ever in the biennial count’s fifth year history. Volunteers, who received training on how to identify homeless people and count them correctly without making assumptions about people who happened to be loitering or near makeshift shelter, were given pre-determined census tracts to canvass.
The count is essential for understanding and tracking how many people are living on the streets and what kind of services and housing will best help them in secure permanent shelter. In 2011, the effort revealed that more than 51,000 people in the county are homeless. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort by cities and the county to improve homeless services and become pro-active in getting people the help they need, said G. Michael Arnold, executive director of LAHSA.
“Local cities are really stepping up and trying to understand homelessness in their communities,” said Arnold. “They are trying to find solutions.”
Individuals, like Holman Senior Pastor, Rev. Kelvin Sauls, are also stepping up.
“We want to be with our brothers and sisters who happen to be homeless,” he said before the group began the count.
Ashley Wilson, who is making a documentary about the homeless, noted that homelessness is not a faraway concept in our society.
“It can happen to anyone,” she said.
Indeed, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas , who joined the group of volunteers in West Adams and Leimert Park, reminded volunteers that being homeless does not diminish a person’s right to compassion and care, saying, “We share a common belief that the dignity and worth of all people matters. They are God’s people and created in his image and likeness.”
The volunteers then fanned out across South Los Angeles until midnight, blanketing the area, using flashlights and maps to try to find homeless people living in parks, cars, trailers or alleys. Remnants of belongings, blankets, clothing, tents, bottles of vodka or beer, often were giveaways for encampments that had been temporarily abandoned. But by midnight, dozens of homeless people would appear in Leimert Park seeking safety in numbers under the brightly lit park palms.
As the Supervisor stood in night shadows of Leimert Park, an area that had suffered a long period of neglect but was redesigned when he was on the Los Angeles City Council in the 1990s, he noted the poignancy of seeing former classmates from his school days at Manual Arts High School, on the streets. Drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness or misfortune such as a health crisis or losing a home, play a large role in the downward spiral of many who never expect to find themselves sleeping out of doors, he said, adding, “It doesn’t get more real than this . These are members of our family, friends and associates, black, brown, yellow, red and white. This is sobering.”
As he ventured out of the park, a man who identified himself as A.J. approached. A.J., it turned out had been chronically homeless years ago and someone who Jeanette Rowe, director of homeless services for LAHSA, had met on the streets 20 years ago in Venice and Santa Monica.
Rowe, who was accompanying the Supervisor on the count, spoke of the long effort to help A.J. transition to indoor living.
“I tried so hard to get him into a shelter,” she recalled. “He told me how much he hated it and I said, ‘OK, you go back there and tell me tomorrow how much you hate it.’ After 90 days in the shelter, it is really hard to return to the street. You’ve lost your step.”
Today, A.J. has an apartment and is living with government assistance. He was selling recorders in the park and seemed to be doing well.
“Years ago, he was a mess,” said Rowe. And then as he walked away, giving her his telephone number, she smiled. One less person was on the street. She had done her job. “It is very rewarding to see that.”