Business & Economy

From the eyes of a volunteer: Counting homeless in Palm Springs

File: Volunteers count homeless people in the Mid Wilshire area of L.A. during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on Jan. 29, 2015.
File: Volunteers count homeless people in the Mid Wilshire area of L.A. during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on Jan. 29, 2015.
Susanica Tam for KPCC
File: Volunteers count homeless people in the Mid Wilshire area of L.A. during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on Jan. 29, 2015.
Dee Dee Wilson Barton got choked up while describing the circumstances behind this sign she saw while volunteering for the Palm Springs homeless count. A homeless woman and her dog had claimed a small space as their own, while hoping for protection from this sign.
Dee Dee Wilson Barton
File: Volunteers count homeless people in the Mid Wilshire area of L.A. during the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on Jan. 29, 2015.
Incentive bags handed out to the homeless included items like hand sanitizer and mittens. They were given the bags and asked a series of census questions by homeless count volunteers.
Dee Dee Wilson Barton


Dee Dee Wilson Barton reported at 6 a.m. Tuesday to participate in the 2016 Riverside County Homeless Count. She took a half day from her job as the owner of an accounting firm and set out to count homeless people for the government for the first time.

She said that from the 10 to 12 people they interviewed in a three-hour period, there were common themes: veterans, mental illness and drug addiction.

“It was either drugs or mental illness that had put all of these people we met and interviewed today living out on the streets,” Wilson Barton said. She also mentioned that about half of the people she encountered Tuesday were veterans.

Armed with incentive bags and clipboards with census questions, she and three fellow volunteers were sent out to survey the state of homelessness in Palm Springs.

“I think that it’s important that we engage more than just stepping over people or wishing they weren’t there,” Wilson Barton said. “This was a day I just set aside to feel what their experience was like, and you know, I get to come home tonight and sleep under a roof, and all of a sudden that’s not a passing gratitude." 

Driving up and down the streets of their assigned area, Wilson Barton told KPCC that her team looked for homeless encampments in the fields. In exchange for an incentive bag filled with items like mittens, hand sanitizer and wipes, the homeless answered questions about their conditions, including personal ones like, "Do you have HIV/AIDS?"

One woman living outside of a 7-Eleven told Wilson Barton, "Oh I have AIDS, because AIDS means you're really intelligent."

"She was incredibly sweet and willing to talk to us — and so mentally ill that nothing made any sense that she said," Wilson Barton said. 

Like Wilson Barton in Riverside County, nearly 7,000 volunteers will fan out across Los Angeles County between Tuesday and Thursday to survey the state of homelessness in the area, according to the Associated Press. 

L.A. Homeless Services Authority Spokeswoman Naomi Goldman told KPCC that the count is a meaningful way to to take part in the fight against homelessness. Goldman said that data from the count is used to advocate for and allocate funds that work to improve the state of homelessness in the community. 

L.A. County has the largest among similar counts in cities nationwide this month, according to the AP. Check out a list of L.A. County homeless counts taking place by time, day and region, or visit TheyCountWillYou.org to register as a volunteer.