PART II: Putting Faces on the Numbers
Last week the County embarked on a count of Santa Monica’s homeless. In the second of two parts, Lookout reporter Oliver Lukacs tagged along to put faces on the numbers.
By Oliver Lukacs
January 31 -- A short, petit, good-humored woman with a terrific laugh, Jisele Sanchez, 39, has been unemployed for nine months and is about to be knocked off the welfare roles.
The reality of becoming homeless is closing in, a reality Sanchez would come face to face with last Tuesday night when she hit Santa Monica’s streets to count the city’s homeless for a countywide census that will help determine funding for social service agencies.
Like many participating in the count, Sanchez showed up for the $50 -- one of the few things left standing between her and the street.
"It's kind of sad, for someone like myself,” Sanchez says. “I never considered myself a part of a group like this, the almost homeless. I just can't believe how many people are going through this."
Sanchez became “almost homeless” after a crisis of conscience. Realizing she hated the service industry, she quit her job and has been unsuccessfully attempting to transition into a different career.
"Subconsciously I wanted to see this (Tuesday night’s census count) for myself and shock myself into reality, to not become homeless. Scared straight,” she says.
“I'm prepared to sell everything but the most valuable things, whatever it takes, but I'm not living on the street. I can't believe people can accept a life like that.”
So Sanchez sees her choice as becoming homeless or returning to doing something she hates for a living?
"A this point, yeah."
It’s 1:20 a.m. on the Third Street Promenade and Nick Fiaschetti, a Texan, and Skylar Deranick, the 23-year-old who escaped the small town of Danville, Illinois for Hollywood, have finished their count.
There's still 30 minutes left before they have to hook up with the two other members of the census team and head back to cash in on the statistics.
Barring a miracle, Fiaschetti says he will enlist in the army reserves tomorrow to avoid becoming homeless.
There's a karaoke in a local bar, and Fiaschetti has already been belting out Christian rock songs all night, so he decides to go in to ham it up on the open microphone. When he takes the mike, he sings the Nirvana standard "Come As You Are."
Outside, sitting on the Blue Bus bench, is Troy Hill, a moderately well-dressed 19-year-old who was one of the 70 people turned away as a census counter at the Ken Edwards Center earlier that night.
A runaway from Paramount, for over a year Hill has been among the 2,000 homeless estimated to be living on the streets of Santa Monica on any given day.
He recently got off the street with the help of Santa Monica’s social service agencies, which received $6.1 million last year, $1.8 million from the City.
Based on his time living in the area, Hill believes the ranks of the homeless are swelling, a suspicion echoed by officials overseeing the count.
The growth comes despite the local get-tough laws passed prohibiting people from bedding down in storefront doorways Downtown and limiting food giveaway programs in City parks, linking them to social services.
“I tried sleeping in the doorways on the Promenade, but every time I fell asleep a cop would wake me up," Hill says matter-of-factly. “The laws are working. There used to be a lot more feeding lines, but that died down."
By making it harder to grab a free lunch and sleep on the streets, the laws were meant to make Santa Monica less attractive to the homeless and weed out those who resisted help getting off the streets.
But that didn't turn out to be the case, Hill says.
"There's still a lot of homeless here. Basically it's hard as hell to get off the streets. But if anyone really wants to get off the street they can do it here."
Hill is explaining how "death is a better alternative than living on the streets" and recalling his aborted attempt to enlist in the military, (which rejected him for hyperactive disorder,) when Fiaschetti steps out of the bar, an older woman on his arm. They are both laughing and smiling.
"We gotta go, it's 1:50, we're gonna be late," Fiaschetti says.
But with the giggling woman, the two other team members wouldn't fit in his little, white 4-seater with the Texas license plate.
"I'll drop you guys off at the Center, pick up the guys, and meet you back there," Fiaschetti says.
Back at the center, chaos brews in the hallways. Tired, frustrated counters jockey to be next in line to cash in and grab the complimentary lunch sacks filled with a sandwich and fruit. There is no one to keep order and the most aggressive are pushing through to the front of the line.
Mario Miles, one of the two team members Fiaschetti was supposed to pick up, asks where the singing Texan is.
"He never met us, so we just walked back,” Miles says. “He's not with you guys?"
Apparently Fiaschetti has found a place to sleep for the night.
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