Thursday, January 25, 2007

It's 2am, Do You Know Where Your Homeless Are?

What'd you do on Tuesday night? I spent my night, between 8pm and 2am, counting homeless people in L.A. County, alongside several hundred of my closest friends.

Why does L.A. County have to count its homeless population? Well, partly because LAHSA wants to know where in LA County the homeless are located so as to serve them better. But mostly 'cause George W. Bush's HUD says we have to. See, local estimates and statistical sampling ain't good enough for HUD. Nope. HUD says every county in the nation's gotta count their homeless, one by one, all at once, or no federal money for you. And you gotta do it every two years, to boot. Maybe that's not so tough for, say, Alexandria, VA (homeless population: 515). But for LA, it's a gargantuan undertaking... a practically-futile, bi-annual search for 82,291 homeless needles in America's most populous county-wide haystack.*

Thanks, HUD. Thanks a bunch.

To pull this off this feat, LAHSA managed to scare up 1,500 homeless counters, and if you're curious just who it is that's out there counting the homeless people, why, it's mainly the homeless people themselves. To be sure, a certain number of the counters are lefty/Green Party unpaid volunteers with too much free time on their hands (like myself), augmented by some number of good-hearted retirees still burdened by that quaint old tradition that used be called civic conscience, as well as a handful of county employees who've been browbeaten into pitching in. But it appears that the bulk of the counters are homeless folks, attracted to the task by the two elements listed below (not necessarily in order of importance):
1) a genuine desire to pitch in and make a positive contribution to one's community
2) a $10/hour cash stipend, on 6 hours of work, payable at the evening's end

My team consisted of me and two homeless women from a transitional housing facility in South L.A. We were to be followed by a reporter named Olin from the Santa Monica Lookout. We were given a map of a census tract that was, in shape and size, almost exactly like a precinct walking map. Only instead of knocking on doors and hectoring those inside to vote for Peter Camejo, we were tromping around in their back alleys, looking for homeless people.

Of course, practical issues arose, as they will when you're counting those who historically defy counting. Was that guy hanging out in the alley a homeless man, or just some guy hanging out in the alley? Did the men bunking in cruddy long-stay motels on Pico count as homeless? Did that camper trailer on the corner of Grant St. by the Jack in the Box have people living inside of it? What about that abandoned flophouse with a door ajar? Should we have ventured inside and looked for squatters? And what about that prostitute in the alley behind the baby furniture store on Pico and Lincoln? Was she homeless?

In the end, there wasn't all that much excitement in store for the three of us (four, if you count Olin). The upper middle-class corner of Santa Monica we'd been assigned to canvas was not exactly ground central for the displaced, it appears, as several hours of on-foot hunting yielded five confirmed homeless people (we didn't count the prostitute, or the long-stay motel folks, though we did count the guy hanging out in the alley).

Oh well.

The count continues for one more night, so if you see someone poking around in the alley behind your house, don't shoot him or her! He or she is just me, counting the homeless people who are also poking around in the alley behind your house.

*Note: the 82,291 homeless figure was arrived at via LA's last point-in-time count, in 2005. That number, of course, gave LA the dubious distinction of having the largest homeless population in the country. We're #1!


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