Volunteers fanned out in cities across California and the U.S. this week for a head count of the nation’s homeless population.
In Los Angeles County, the three-day effort involved thousands of people searching hundreds of square miles from downtown L.A.’s Skid Row to the semi-rural desert towns of the Antelope Valley. How many people are counted helps determine where federal dollars are spent.
On the first night of the count in West Covina south of Los Angeles, Angel Espinoza and three other volunteers slowly prowled a dark riverside access road in a minivan.
"Yeah, it looks like an entrance. And I’ll open it up with a key and then we can go up in there,” said Espinoza, spotting a locked gate at the top of the access road.
Much of the night’s search went like this, slowly cruising streets and back alleys by car with the occasional hike through a park or secluded river bottom. Street maps and flashlights helped guide the way.
“Yeah, OK, let me get out and see,” said Espinoza, climbing out of the van with a jumble of keys.
“I got the key to every gate along every creek and river in the county,” he laughed. “I’m very familiar with riverbeds. I’m in ‘em all day long.”
That’s because Espinoza is on the streets a lot as an outreach worker with the L.A. Homeless Services Authority’s emergency response team.
He grew up in West Covina but hasn’t been back in a long time. So it’s a good thing Frederick Sykes happened to be riding shotgun.
Sykes directed the van’s driver where to go to find homeless hot spots in parks or outside liquor stores and 7-Elevens.
Wearing a white hoodie and munching on sunflower seeds, Sykes said he’s lived here since the late '70s. He also happens to be the mayor of West Covina
“As the mayor of the city, you’re constantly trying to make life better for everybody. And that includes the homeless because they’re a resource,” said Sykes.
“It’s just a matter of how do we get so they can function better. We know we need a place to house them, something that’s humane.”
Guidelines for the homeless count are precise. You stay within a pre-assigned “zone.” If you see someone you think is homeless, you jot down the basics; male, female, adult, child and so on.
Same thing goes for a car or RV that looks like it is being lived in. We spotted several of those. There are telltale signs like belongings piled to a car’s ceiling, or windshields blocked with dirty linens or cardboard.
Volunteers are discouraged from talking to or disturbing a person they believe is homeless. That means volunteer counters can’t actually be sure if a person is homeless or not.
It's an imperfect science, but part of a national effort that nonetheless gives federal authorities a better snapshot of where people are and how they’re living.
Todd Palmquist, from the San Gabriel Valley Consortium on Homelessness, said L.A. County will delve a little deeper with a face-to-face survey next month.
“And at that point they will actually interview individuals and talk to them,” said Palmquist. “You ask a lot more about living conditions, and if they are a veteran and those kinds of things. This one tonight is just strictly a count.”
Results from this week’s three-day count and the upcoming L.A. County homeless survey should be available by the summer.