January 29 -- Peering behind a metallic barrier with
a flashlight, an unlikely trio of homeless census workers found
their first encampment just past midnight.
"There's somebody back there sleeping," whispered 34-year-old
screenwriter and volunteer Patrick Meighen, "but it could
be more than one."
A mess of commandeered mattresses, blankets and matted hair shifted
behind a barricade of shopping carts and cardboard. A few feet
away in the lit alley behind Pico and Lincoln boulevards, a prostitute
fielded questions from three Santa Monica police officers.
"I don't think she counts," said Javada Brooks, a homeless
woman who was paid $10 an hour to work as a sensus counter Tuesday
night. "She looks all dressed up, like she has money."
|Patrick Meighen looks for
the homeless. (Photos by Olin Ericksen)
Brooks and Meighen were two of the foot soldiers in an army of
thousands of census workers and volunteers, including 1,500 in
LA County, who fanned out across the nation’s streets last
Their mission was seemingly simple and, likely, impossible: count
every homeless person in every alley, park, hillside, freeway
underpass, vehicle, RV and shelter in poor and multimillion dollar
residential neighborhoods in cities across the nation, including
"I think that this is an incredible undertaking," said
Rebecca Isaacs, director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services
Authority (LAHSA), who coordinated Los Angeles County's census
count, the largest effort in the nation.
Mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
(HUD) for the second time in three years, the census will help
set policies, evaluate programs and earmark funds to tackle homelessness.
The 2005 census in LA County -- which helped LAHSA secure approximately
$50 million in federal grants last year -- counted nearly 90,000
homeless during the three-night census. That gave the county the
largest concentration of homeless in a nation where 750,000 people
live on the streets.
But it's more than the money that counts, said Isaacs, who was
hired last summer to turn the financially troubled agency around.
"I think the count is really important because in Los Angeles
County, homelessness is at a crisis point," said Isaacs,
who said she has experience running large operations and campaigns.
"We want to know how many people there are to help understand
the problem, and therefore, bring about a better plan to help
them," she said.
From a "situation room" at LAHSA headquarters in Downtown
Los Angeles, Isaacs managed nearly 30 sites that counted some
500 census tracts in and around Los Angeles County over three
nights last week.
The census included 211 "hot spots," or areas where
the homeless are known to gather, several of them in Santa Monica,
Following the same method used in 2005, the count will also include
information gathered during 20-minute interviews that will be
conducted next month with nearly 3,500 homeless individuals.
The head count and interviews, as well as other data, will give
the agency an idea of how many homeless were missed during the
three-day census, Isaacs said.
The local count began Tuesday night, when 59 paid workers and
24 volunteers fanned out from the Unitarian Universalist Community
Church of Santa Monica, 1260 18th Street, across the beachside
city and the Westside.
The first night included 12 of Santa Monica's 19 census tracts,
three more than in the 2005
census that counted 1,192 homeless in the city. (Based on
the count, the County projected there were some 2,000 people living
in the city, but a recent report
by the Washington-based Urban Institute put the number at around
"People have different points of view, and that's why we
have them go out as teams," said site coordinator Alma Mejorado,
who organized the local count.
|Volunteer inspects van.
East of Lincoln and south of Pico Boulevard in the Sunset Park
Neighborhood, census tract 7022.01 was partially counted by Meighen,
Brooks and Courtney Gettemy, who set out from the church at around
Walking east to west and back between Cedar Street and Pico Boulevard,
methodically combing streets and darkened alleys, the three got
to know each other.
"I'd like to live in one of these houses someday,"
said Gettemy, who is 24 and living in a shelter. Now clean, the
mother of three from Washington state used to get high on methamphetamines
before getting help two years ago.
"What I really want is my son back," said Gettemy,
who is fighting for custody of her two-year old boy. Like Brooks,
Gettemy appears well kept and feels empathy for the more hardened
homeless in Santa Monica.
Brooks, who resides at a shelter for women after a divorce from
her husband of ten years, said, "I've never had to live like
From sharing life histories to little quirks, the three kept
up the conversation until they came upon their first homeless
vehicle at around 10 p.m.
"It's got a bike outside, so I think this is one,"
said Meighen, who writes full-time for the cult animated TV show,
"The Family Guy."
The three census takers took a moment and then marked the blue
van officially as a car, which counts as one person, according
to LAHSA workers. Vans and RVs with "water and utility hook-ups"
fall under a separate category, according to the tally sheet.
It would be the first of many judgment calls that night.
Around 11:15, a woman was leaving an RV parked in a parking lot
on Pico Boulevard and Euclid Avenue to join a man wandering Euclid
whom the group had just marked homeless.
"I think we should mark the RV, and not the woman,"
said Meighen, who said he based his decision on instructions given
While still counted as a "person," the vehicle will
not result in useful information, such as the gender of the person
counted or whether that person was 18 or older, categories that
appear on the tally sheet.
By the end of the night, the group had only counted two male
adults, one car with a homeless person, one van or RV and one
While other teams fanned out across different parts of the same
tract -- including teams that used their cars -- the preliminary
count indicated that the number of homeless counted remained steady
since 2005 at about a dozen and a half.
Still, the count is in the eye of the beholder, LAHSA officials
"We have to take our best guess," said Mejorado. "If
she was outside the RV, I could have counted it either way,"
she said, referring to the decision made by the group during the
Said Isaacs, "I think that, like any other large undertaking,
you try to be as uniform as you can to provide as much consistency
as you can."
Although it took nearly a year to release the results of the
first census, this year’s count can be expected in July,
allowing cities, such as Santa Monica, to get an idea of the breath
of their homeless problem, Isaacs said.
"It helps to know how many and where the homeless are,"
she said. "The numbers, better or worse, will give us a benchmark
for the first time in history."