Last night I volunteered a few hours of my time to participate in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Basically what this entails is walking, or driving in an assigned grid with a small team of people to simply view and count the number of people or shelters you encounter on the street while wearing a bright yellow vest with reflective tape all over it, looking as stylish and as inconspicuous as a walking traffic cone.
All questionable fashion attire aside, it was a beautiful night to be out walking the mean streets of No Ho. It was chilly, but not bitingly cold and I was grateful it wasn’t pouring rain as it had been all last week.
We. the volunteers, met in the Senior Center at a local park where we were briefed on what to look for, how to do the count, and how to report our findings accurately. I was especially impressed with the level of respect the organization stressed. Respect was undergirding every bit of language and instruction we were given. We were advised not to engage or intrude upon the privacy of the individuals we encountered. The people we were counting were referred to as “individuals experiencing homelessness” not “homeless people” or the even more dehumanizing term “the homeless” – as if “they” were all one big teeming mass of human driftwood cluttering up the shores of our lovely city.
We were told to look for people who may be living in RV’s on the street, to check parking lots for individuals who may be sleeping in their cars, those who may be in tents or those who may be sheltering in doorways.
After the orientation, the paperwork of signing release forms and grabbing our vests, we split up into groups of four and got our grid assignments for the night. One of our team volunteered to drive, one to navigate, one to record and I was there to be awake, aware and to count.
We walked and also slowly drove through the residential areas and walked on foot down the brightly lit main streets. We also walked all the alleyways on foot and I was surprised at how clean they were and how quiet the residential neighborhoods were considering the area we were in was between a main street and the freeway.
As we walked we talked and joked. We noted all the sights and particularly the smells around us as we passed burger joints, outdoor taco vendors, laundromats and, my favorite fragrance of the evening, an Indian food restaurant. The funniest part was that all of us became instantly aware when there was a marijuana dispensary ahead of us because even with the doors closed, that smell was more pungent than a thousand garlic naans!
But as a group, whenever we spotted a car, a tent, an RV or a person sleeping on the street, all conversation ceased. We would simply observe and our recorder would make a notation on her clipboard. Every time the reality of one person experiencing homelessness was before us, we became silent and sober and no one would talk for a long while afterwards.
At the end of the night, when we had gone down every alley and driven down every street our tally ended up being three RVs, one tent, one person living in a car and one man curled up in a doorway – hard to spot, but there – surrounded by cast off Goodwill donations.
At the end of the night, our mission completed, we all got signed certificates of appreciation for our time. We got in our nice cars and went back to our cozy homes, with our full refrigerators and our warm beds, our counting done.
For me, I see people experiencing homelessness every day as the area behind my home has been turned into a jogging path and there are a few guys living right behind my house who I see often. Even still, now that I have been trained to spot people “living rough”, as they say in England, I can’t unsee the tents, the tarps, the abandoned couches, the dirty feet sticking out from behind dumpsters. On the way home I was still counting… there were four tents clumped together on the freeway underpass. One block from my house there was a dude sleeping in a sleeping bag in another doorway on the street. And the women who are experiencing homelessness. I know they are out there, but where are they? Even further hidden away, I suspect.
Homelessness is such a huge problem and it appears to be getting worse, not better. The purpose of our counting last night was to get some hard numbers to determine funding and provide resources for these folks. Actually seeing how some people are barely surviving in our country, one of the richest on earth, is sobering, and so are the stats:
People in Los Angeles County are experiencing homelessness
Increase in people aged 62 and older who are experiencing homelessness
3 out of 4
People experiencing homelessness remain unsheltered
Of people experiencing homelessness are currently fleeing violence
People over the past year are experiencing homelessness for the first time
I’d like to end this blog post on a more uplifting note, but it is what it is. For me, I do what I can and I take what I can into my daily prayer. But after last night I do want to say this: If you are experiencing homelessness? I see you and you do count.