It remains a very depressing sight: dozens or more homeless men and women, and sometimes children, shivering under thin blankets and ill-fitting clothes while searching or hoping for some relief from the cold, wintry nights on city or community streets, underneath freeway overpasses and bridges, or in vehicles — and too often not finding any.
Those were the images awaiting 45 area volunteers taking part in the 2020 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count throughout the county. The three-day event, which began Tuesday, Jan. 21, in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, attempts to count or account for every homeless person in LA county.
The volunteers for the valley wide count met at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission before spending nearly four hours in various assigned communities looking for the homeless. Tuesday’s count concentrated primarily on counting those who were on the streets.
“We went block by block,” said Andres Ocon, an advocate for the homeless with LA Family Housing who was with volunteers doing a count in Northridge. He served as the deployment site coordinator for LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Autority) at the rescue mission Tuesday.
“There were some areas where there were no people experiencing homelessness, and others who were — they were closer to the river, train tracks and under bridges.”
Ocon said volunteers completed their counts in the Valley on Tuesday. “If there were any tracks that were not counted — because there may not have been enough volunteers or enough time to count them — then the LAHSA will send out its employees to count those areas.”
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a biennial point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. Beginning in 2016, LAHSA started holding the count annually to analyze the trends of people experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by 12% from 2018 to 2019 to reach an estimated 58,936 people, based on the results of last year’s point-in-time count. Los Angeles saw a 16% increase in its numbers, which resulted in about 36,000 homeless people.
Nearly three-quarters of those people were reported to be living in cars, tents, makeshift shelters or on the streets without any apparent cover from the elements.
“Every single person matters — whether they have an address or not,” said LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was among those holding clipboards as the counting began Tuesday night in North Hollywood.
“The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count is important in helping us better understand the needs of our unhoused neighbors, and deciding how resources are allocated to help ensure they get the housing, healing, and hope they urgently need.”
Added County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, “We must resolve, in our hearts and minds, that it is our duty to improve lives beyond our own. By volunteering for the Homeless Count, and taking other steps to help our most vulnerable neighbors, we have a chance to live out our professed values and bring them in line with our most sacred right: dignity for all.”
This year, volunteers will spread out across 4,000 square miles to count the county’s unsheltered homeless population The effort, officials say, is essential to understanding how large the homeless crisis has become and is required to be conducted by Continuum of Care providers to receive federal funding through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
On Wednesday, Jan. 22, volunteers focused on west and southeast Los Angeles as well as the South Bay. On Thursday, Jan. 23, volunteers will count homeless people in Antelope Valley, downtown Los Angeles and South Los Angeles.
Volunteers were still being sought, officials said.
“The Count is a critical census of the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night and documents where unsheltered people are living. To cover 4,000 square miles over three days, we need help,” said LAHSA Commission Chair Sarah Dusseault.
Doing the count remains heart-breaking work, Ocon said.
“It’s very hard, very frustrating,” he said. “I’ve worked in homeless services for eight years, and we put in a lot of effort. We want to see changes, and we are seeing some changes. But more people are falling into homelessness. So while we are making progress, more people are falling into homelessness. That’s the frustrating part.
“As long as we focus on the work we are doing, we are making progress.”
Ocon said he was unable to provide a number from Tuesday’s count because LAHSA was also tabulating counts from shelters and final figures will be released later.
Those wishing to volunteer can do so online at www.theycountwillyou.org/volunteer