5:45 AM – Santa Monica, CA – My bed is warm and cozy this morning, and I feel extra grateful for this seemingly ordinary comfort as it’s a cold 53 degrees outside where nearly a thousand people are sleeping. I know because, hours ago, I was among 375 volunteers who counted them.
This is my story of the Homeless Count 2019.
The City of Santa Monica is nothing if not organized. Last night, a Wednesday, I arrived at St. Monica’s Catholic Church around 10:30 PM and checked-in for my team assignment: 20A.
I had no inkling where in Santa Monica my team would be sent to count the homeless, so I dressed really warmly as recommended in the advance emails sent to volunteers: Thermal underwear beneath jeans and a turtleneck and my ski jacket, gloves and hat. I brought my own flashlight, as well.
I see a couple of people whom I personally know: The first is Jeremy, the librarian at Santa Monica’s Ocean Park branch . He’s young and exuberant. A Millennial. I think, Wow! Jeremy’s here after a full day of work where he interacts with homeless people all day. Impressive.
The second person I recognize is City Manager Rick Cole who stands apart surveying the room which is quickly filling up with volunteers, a capacity turnout of local residents, law enforcement and firefighters. They actually had to turn people away … to volunteer. Rick and I follow each other on Twitter so we have an immediate rapport and a fun chat. He’s soon engaged with other people waiting to say Hello so I beg off to meet my Team.
Two blonde women sit in the assigned seats for 20A: Linda, a resident on nearby 19th Street and her friend Margery, who actually lives in Pacific Palisades, but who is joining Linda as a friend helping out a friend. Both are first-time volunteer counters (as am I). The fourth member of our 4-man team arrives: Steve, a really tall, really big, really handsome African American man in his 60s. He is a case worker at Step Up on Second , an organization dedicated to helping the poor and disenfranchised in Santa Monica.
My team seems great.
We watch a a very moving, very inspiring video of a recovering alcoholic who talks about his life on the street. A Police Officer discusses safety. Then Richard Bloom , former mayor and current Member of the State Assembly, speaks. He quotes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since we just celebrated MLK day, and I’ll paraphrase his moving sentiment:
What’s the point of building skyscrapers or going to the Moon if we can’t take care of our Poor, our most needy among us? What’s the point of our great technological advancements if we don’t look to our own neighborhood and city and see those struggling to live and to not help them?
Like everyone else in the room, I feel immediately sobered up and reminded of the job ahead which now feels like a Divine Call to Serve.
Soon, all 375 now-sobered volunteers, nicely divided into teams of 4, some of whom are accompanied by an SMPD officer depending on the area they are counting (Palisades Park, the beach), and we are off to our team vehicle to drive to our designated zone: My neighborhood in Ocean Park.
Wow. I am quietly stunned. This count just got personal.
Linda has graciously supplied her large SUV as our team vehicle, so we all clamber inside where she has bottles of water for us. Linda is a good host. Big Steve and I (now dubbed Smaller Steve) sit in the back while Margery rides shotgun. Roles are assigned: Linda drives and keeps us safe. Margery is a Spotter as is Big Steve, and I have the clipboard and write down the address and area of anyone we see in the area we are to cover. Big Steve has the map and directs Linda’s driving.
Note: It’s now just after Midnight. The Count is conducted at this hour because the majority of the city’s homeless population have chosen a spot for the night and have made their camp and can be more easily identified. We are instructed not to engage anyone in conversation as this is a count, not an outreach program. We’ve got a job to do and two hours in which to do it.
Neither Linda or Margery are very familiar with Ocean Park, so I feel like the unofficial expert on the area, but what’s interesting is that the zone we cover is the other half of my neighborhood, the part that I rarely visit or drive through. My polling place is there, though, so I know exactly where we are heading. As does Big Steve.
As Linda drives very slowly up and down each street, Margery and Big Steve scout on the right side of the car, and I take the left side, looking for homeless people.
This section of Ocean Park is a very residential neighborhood with lots of interesting homes and side streets and lots of discarded furniture which excites Linda and Margery.
We see one person sleeping on a sidewalk, some sleeping in their cars, and some in alleys near Lincoln Blvd, but we don’t see anyone sleeping in tents. At Joslyn Park, which is my polling place, Big Steve and I get out of the car with our flashlights and check the park. We are both surprised that no one has camped there. (That’s where I’d go as there are lots of trees for concealment and it’s dark so you can sleep.)
Big Steve tutors us on the state of mind of the homeless as he deals with them on a daily basis at Step Up on 2nd. His experience is both invaluable and enlightening. He’s been doing the Homeless Count for 10+ years.
I realize just how kind and warm-hearted these people are: Team 20A. Margery gets very excited when she spots someone sleeping in their car. Big Steve is not surprised that we don’t see very many people camped out in this area, five in total. I write down the addresses on the clipboard, and Big Steve will later note the locations on his map, so the city will now know where the homeless are choosing to spend the night, and subsequently, where to provide outreach services.
As we wrap up driving our designated area, it’s now about 1:30 AM. We are on Bay Street, and I note that we are in Dogtown, a famous surf and skateboard area from the ‘60s, info that is new to both Linda and Margery. Big Steve knows all about Dogtown. I am amazed that everyone doesn’t which is a clue about how we each cloister in our own bubble to a degree.
Back at St. Monica’s, we each check in so that the City knows we have returned safely. I snap a quick Selfie with Team 20A, and Big Steve bids us each farewell with a big hug, which is really sweet. Everyone hugs. It’s a nice moment.
Big smiles are all around as other teams make their triumphant return with information in hand. We Are Santa Monica t-shirts are given out to the volunteers which is a very cool gesture.
Driving home through a very quiet and deserted-looking city, I spot a team still on the street, counting at 1:35 AM. Wow! I am impressed and a little worried. They should be done by now. They are on foot, though.
When I get home to my warm apartment, I am too energized to do anything but think about what I’ve just witnessed. The Homeless Count feels important, and I am glad I was a small part of it. I hope it helps.
When I do finally go to bed, I give a prayer of thanks for this comfort knowing there are five people outside who do not enjoy the same.
Post Script: Results of the Homeless Count showed a 3% increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. However, in the City of Los Angeles, that number increased by 12% with nearly 59,000 people suffering. Homelessness will continue to be a topic of conversation and a problem to address for years to come.
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