Thousands of volunteers trek LA County to count the homeless population

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AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

A group of homeless people wait in line outside a mission for food in Los Angeles, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011. More than 5,000 volunteers, equipped with maps, clipboards and flashlights, scoured 4,000 square miles of Los Angeles County this week to count the homeless population. They peered down back alleys, scanned junk-filled cars, and checked crevices around freeway underpasses in what officials say is the nation's largest homeless census.

Thousands of volunteers have been hitting the streets across Los Angeles County in an attempt to count the number of homeless people. The census of the homeless happens every other year in cities across the nation.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has been doing a bi-annual homeless count since 2005. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count to help determine how much federal funding each area will receive for services.

LA is known as the homeless capital of the country. At last count, Los Angeles County had 40,000 homeless people living within its lines. That is more than any other county in the United States.

In the San Fernando Valley, at the Lankershim Boulevard headquarters of the non-profit LA Family Housing, volunteers meet for a brief training session. After that, they break up into smaller teams. Each team is assigned a census tract to canvass.

One team of five volunteers piles into a van and heads to their census tract. One volunteer says, they “definitely” feel they are on a mission.

The volunteers on this team range in age from their 20s to their 50s and live in areas from South LA to Pasadena.

The group arrives at the corner of Coldwater and Sherman Way. Mini strip malls, a Taco Bell, Verizon store and Domino’s Pizza line each side. Right away volunteer Melissa Guzman spots someone.

“I think there’s a lady right there pan handling on a bicycle at the Jack in the Box,” she says.

The group tumbles out of the van and heads out on foot. Within minutes, a homeless man walks up.

“How are you doing?” a group member asks.

“Horrible,” he responds. “I’m doing very bad. Haven’t had dinner. Haven’t had lunch or breakfast. I live on the side of Big Lots with my dad.”

The man explains he lives outside in the parking lot of the Big Lots warehouse store. Volunteer Jeff Schafer offers him an apple.

“I have an apple in my pocket,” Schafer says.

“No, that’s OK,” he responds, “I’ve got no teeth.”

The volunteers keep walking. The area they are responsible for includes a small stretch of the LA River. They decide that is the place to look. But there are obstacles. They reach a rod iron gate.

“We are locked out,” Gohar Katurgian says. “Unfortunately it is locked and we can’t get through. And this is probably the area where most of the folks we are looking for are in because it’s secluded, and they’re not bothered by the cars and the drivers and people walking by,” she says.

The group walks another mile trying to get in from a different side, but no luck there either.

As they make their way through the neighborhood, volunteers have to use discretion in the count.

“I thought that guy was homeless because he was peeing in the alley,” Guzman says. “But now I don’t think he’s homeless because he went into the back garage of that house. Maybe they’re just starting their weekend early.”

The volunteers check behind mini mall and grocery store parking lots. In back of one lot they walk by a public storage rental building with a chain link fence. From behind the fence, a sock-footed woman emerges on crutches with two barking Chihuahuas. She insists the storage facility is her home and says she’s not homeless.

After a few hours of walking around in the dark, the volunteers realize the mission is tougher than they expected. By about 11:15 p.m., Volunteer Ed Farmer says the group has found only three people and an encampment van.

“It’s a little frustrating because we know there are homeless people in the valley and a lot of them,” he says. “But we’re just not finding them right now.”

Still, Katurgian says this is her effort to give back.

“I’m just very blessed,” she says. “I have a roof over my head. I can feed my son. We have clothes on our backs. I’ve got a car to go to work. You have to somehow contribute to society. You have to help somehow. This is basically the mission tonight. Unfortunately we have some obstacles in our way. But that can be expected.”

It’s getting close to midnight. In the end, this group counts only four homeless people.

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