Homeless advocates enlist critics, neighborhood councils for census count
At the National Council of Jewish Women's building in Mid-City, residents donned homeless count tees and tucked clipboards under their arms as they prepared to fan out for last Thursday's count of homeless living on the street.
After a brief tutorial, volunteers from this affluent neighborhood just east of Beverly Hills were to fan out into the area's streets and alleys, tallying the individuals sleeping outside and marking down the number of cars and RVs that look lived-in.
The count has been held for the past 10 years. It's mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But in years past, it's been carried out largely by service providers and sets of volunteers from one of a few large organizations.
This year, organizers have shifted tactics, reaching out to groups that can sometimes be hostile to the homeless — including business organizations and L.A.'s vast network of neighborhood councils.
In the months leading up to the count, representatives from the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) embarked on a campaign to reach local communities, speaking at neighborhood council meetings and encouraging groups to take part in the effort.
And it seems to have worked.
In all, around 70 neighborhood councils joined the homeless count effort this year — adding about 1,000 new volunteers, according to LAHSA.
Arming critics with clipboards
LAHSA Interim director of policy and planning Clemenina Verjan said the idea was to involve those who have a direct stake in the results of the census and an interest in ending homelessness.
"Our goal right now is to really focus on people to go and survey in their local community so they'll know their homeless individuals," Verjan said. "And then they have a little bit more empathy about individuals who are on the street."
For homeless advocates, it's a way to educate the very people who sometimes complain about the presence of the homeless in their areas and give them a way to help.
For many in the neighborhood councils, participating in the count is a way to make sure their areas are on the map for potential resources, including the possibility of funding for homeless services.
Mid-City West neighborhood council president Scott Epstein said his constituents attend the count for a variety of reasons — from die-hard volunteers to others frustrated by the number of homeless in their area.
"I think a lot of people just have a lot of concerns about homelessness," he said. "They see it a lot in our community — as the numbers are showing — and they want to be able to do something about it."
The first step, he said, is to gather the data that demonstrate the need for more help.
"The better the count, probably, the more resources we'll get from the federal government," he said. "Until you kind of paint the picture of the need out there, it's hard to make the case to the various funding organizations — private and public — that may be able to address the situation."
This is the first time the Mid-City West neighborhood council has been involved in the homeless count. They were so successful in raising volunteers that LAHSA is allowing the council to head up and operate its own deployment center this year, something that's typically left to LAHSA employees or to seasoned volunteers.
Epstein said they set out to find 50 volunteers to help out. They came back with 65, enough to send their overflow to other neighborhoods — including Pico and Greater Wilshire — who had fewer volunteers.
A model made in Hollywood
The model for this approach was forged in Hollywood, which just completed its fourth homeless census. The community has used it as a way to call for more resources and bring community stakeholders together.
Organizer Nathan French was part of that effort. He said Hollywood reduced the number of people living on their streets by about one-third between 2010 and 2015, housing 370 people.
The data that's collected not only helps raise funds, French said, but it can also help break the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness into comprehensible figures and put the issue in perspective.
"In L.A. we're so used to hearing huge numbers, and that huge number turns a lot of people off to being involved," French said. "But when you say there's 500 people, suddenly that starts to become a much more reasonable number."
French hopes that Mid-City will be the next community to make a dent in getting housing for its homeless, and he's on hand at tonight's event to lend his advice. He said the next step is to use the momentum from the count to form a coalition of business interests, community leaders and service providers.
"The way that we approached it when we started sharing what happened in Hollywood with other communities," he said, "is that: Whether you're the bleeding heart person who is in solidarity with this poor human being; whether you're the angry, curmudgeon-y business-owner who can't stand those smelly homeless people on the street, you share one thing in common: You want them off the street."
The street count is complete, but the census will continue this week, as service providers tally the number of people living in L.A. County shelters and begin their demographic survey of the area's homeless.