Monday, January 31, 2011

Counting The Homeless

Last Thursday night I went out to hunt homeless people. Found seven of them. Me and Tucker.
Not to shoot them, mind you, and have them stuffed and mounted on the wall of my box... heck no! What a sick, disgusting thought, dear readers. I'm shocked you would come up with something like that.
No, we went out to count them, and apparently they can only be counted at night, making them nocturnal, something I didn't know before.
The federal government, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires a manual count of the number of homeless people living in communities which determines how to distribute the approximately $74 million in national, state, and local funds for vital services, housing help, and community outreach.
In Los Angeles the Homeless Services Authority organizes the mandated count every two years, tallying the number of homeless individuals and families living in areas not meant for habitation.
“The count will be the largest in the nation just based on the size,” said Calvin Fortenberry, spokesman for the Homeless Services Authority, covering 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County over three nights.
In 2009, the last time the count was made, 43,000 homeless people were counted throughout Los Angeles County, a 38-percent decrease from 2007 during a time of recession. That result was a tad controversial and had many experts wondering about the accuracy and the methodology of the count itself.
“No one will tell you counting the homeless this way will give you an accurate count,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the homeless.
“It was statistically impossible to have housed that many people in two years,” said Donovan. “It makes you think there was something wrong with the counting system.”
But how else is it going to get done, dear readers? I ask you. As of yet we have no way to differentiate between homeless people and regular people that have homes to go to using satellite imagery. Perhaps one day.
I don't wish to make light of this, really, as I could be considered to be homeless myself. Homelessness in this country, purportedly the richest country in the world (or at least the most in debt country in the world), is a national disgrace. The Obama administration has begun a ambitious program which calls for ending child and family homelessness in 10 years while wiping out chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five through it's "Open Door," initiative. That won't happen of course, there will inevitably be other programs and situations that will pop up in the future, like prolonging tax breaks for the richest Americans, that will take priority over homeless people, but it certainly sounds good.
And homelessness is on the rise. Ever since Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 the number of homeless have increased. By the late 80s the number had swollen to 600,000 on any given night. Many were Vietnam veterans, children and laid-off workers.
With the Republican recession of 2007, the current home foreclosure crisis very much still in existence, and high levels of long term unemployment, more and more people and families are having to make drastic changes in their living conditions. Either they become actual homeless people living on the streets, or in cars and shelters, or having to make other arrangements like moving in with friends and relatives.
Nationally, homelessness has increased by 3 percent over the past six months, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
And still all I see on TV are commercials that want to sell us all kinds of stuff. According to the national corporate media, homelessness and economic disparity do not exist in this country.
Anyway, my friend, the lovely case manager Rachel M (see: Carver/SRHT Celebration 1
And Carver/SRHT Celebration 2 )
wrote a very good article in the Skid Row Housing Trust Community Connection magazine I'd never heard of, or seen before. We used to have a magazine called The Trust News, but I guess they don't publish that anymore. Anyway, Rachel wrote this article on the upcoming homeless count, and in it she asked for volunteers to participate in the count from anyone who happened to read her article.
Well, I read the article and I decided to volunteer. I sent an Email to Rachel telling her what a great article she had written (it's always good to compliment women on their academic skills as they're so insecure), and that because of it I would be volunteering.
She replied to my Email, and said this, and I quote: "Thanks Rick!"
Her article instructed me to get in touch with my case manager to let him know I wanted to volunteer. I did this. My new case manager is a very nice young man by the name of Robert. He dutifully registered me for the count on his computer machine.
Robert would be counting homeless people too, but in a different part of the city.
Last Thursday night came soon enough, and I left my box at around 7:00PM, caught a bus downtown, then took the Red Line to Beverly and Vermont.
Initially, I walked in the wrong direction, going west instead of east on Beverly as I was supposed to do. When I realized my mistake I got very mad at the people who designed this crazy city, then discovered I still had time to get to the Path Center before 8:00, which I did.
The PATH Regional Homeless Center Los Angeles is a 40,000 square foot facility that features 98 beds of transitional housing for men, women, and families, and is also home to the PATH Mall, a collaborative of nearly two dozen social service providers who provide a complete network of services all located under one roof. I didn't see any of that though. The building is nice and new, with security guards at each entrance, but looked empty to me when I first got there.
I was let in and told to go down a certain hallway, where I found the rest of the counters either seated in a large room with many chairs, or signing in. I signed a waver which I didn't read. I assume it absolved the Homeless Services Authority of any liability if I were attacked by crazed homeless people during the count. I also signed in, and was given a nice T-shirt and ball cap. The T-shirt had this to say: "Homeless Count Volunteer," on the front, and "2011 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count 'They Count, Will You?' January 25-27, 2011,," on the back. The ball cap said something similar.
After signing in I took a seat in the large room. It was determined that a little more than 60 of us showed up, to cover a little more than 30 areas, so we would be asked to team up in twos, to be able to cover them all.
We were trained for about half an hour, and instructed that we were not to approach actual or suspected homeless people and ask them if they were homeless. Oh no. We were just supposed to walk and observe, and if we saw what we thought were homeless people we were to mark it down on a tally sheet that was provided to us. We would be looking for homeless people above 18 years of age, and homeless people below 18. We would designate which gender the homeless people were if that could be determined. We would look at parked cars and vans to see if there were homeless people in there trying to sleep. If we saw some we would mark it down, if we didn't we wouldn't. We would look for encampments of homeless people living in boxes, or some such. And if we didn't find any at all, well that was alright to. Zero was a valid number, we were told. That information would be useful as well.
Where we were sitting in the room decided pretty much who our partners would be. I was sitting next to a very presentable young man by the name of Tucker (no relation to Carlson... I think) He worked as a supervisor for an online retail company. I told him I was a disabled veteran. We were given an area to canvas over by Koreatown, Area 14 to be exact, and then were on our way.
I also told Tucker I didn't have a car, which was true, I didn't have one. Haven't had one for 10 years as a a matter of fact. Our area was quite aways from the PATH building so we took Tucker's car, a Saab. Apparently Tucker makes some good money in the online retail industry.
It took us about ten minutes to get to our area, reaching it at about 9:30. It's boundaries were Crenshaw Bl. on the west, Arlington Ave. on the east, Country Club Dr. on the north, and Pico Bl. to the south. We were to count each and every homeless person we found within those boundaries.
So we parked on Arlington, got out and entered Area 14, and began counting. It wasn't too cold, but crisp. Tucker wasn't even wearing a jacket.
"I think this is the only part of the country that is having nice weather," I told him, as the east is experiencing heavy snow storms still, as well as other parts of the country, due to Global Warming.
"I think you're right," Tucker replied.
"I didn't think it would be like this," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I thought they might want us to go up to cars and people and ask them if they were homeless, which might have been awkward," he said.
"Yes," I replied, "that would have been very awkward indeed... possibly even dangerous."
He laughed. "Yes, probably dangerous."
Tucker and I would split up taking one side of a street each, looking into parked cars, and watching out for clusters of boxes set up as temporary homes, in the mostly residential area. We found our first guy sleeping in a car, and Tucker marked him on the tally sheet.
"At least we found one," I told him. He laughed again.
We would find five others, either in cars, or out collecting plastic bottles and cans from trash cans on the street. Tucker would come across a box that looked like someone was living in it, so he marked it down as an encampment, making our total for the night 7. We completed our walk through the area by 10:50, and headed back toward Tucker's car.
Of course before we left for the night we called the cops on Tucker's cell phone and had all of our homeless people we had just counted arrested for vagrancy and taken to county jail where they would be safe and warm. It was the least we could do.
We returned to PATH, and turned our tally sheet in, and were rewarded with a nice "Certificate of Appreciation," for participating in the count. I'm looking at it right now. It's very nice.
Tucker and I parted and went our separate ways.
The results of the count will be released later this year.

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