CITYWIDE — For more than 200 volunteers, a long night had just began.
Just before 10 p.m. on Tuesday, the Ken Edwards Center on Fourth Street was packed with volunteers who gathered to participate in the Santa Monica homeless count for 2009.
For the first time, City Hall conducted a complete homeless count covering all of the city’s 19 census tracts. The count included every street, alleyway, park, jail and shelter in Santa Monica.
To execute the massive tally, City Hall had to enlist at least 180 volunteers to cover the ground. However, the turnout was much larger than expected.
“We hoped we’d get about 180 and we’re closer to about 260,” said Julie Rusk, manager of the Human Services Division. “We’ve been turning people away.”
All across Los Angeles, communities participated in a homeless count and Santa Monica ended up sending the extra volunteers to areas across L.A.
The 260 people were divided up into two large groups, one beginning at the Ken Edwards Center and the other at Virginia Avenue Park. The groups were then split into 65 teams of about three to four.
“People often ask how many people are homeless in Santa Monica, and I think it’s a really important and valid question,” said Danielle Noble, senior administrative analyst for the Human Services Division. “It’s something we need to know as it changes every day.”
In addition to just knowing the scope of the homeless problem, City Hall is dependent on their homeless counts to receive funding from the federal government for social services.
The Santa Monica Police Department had a large presence at the gathering — at least 20 officers. Their job was to provide security for the homeless count.
“I think what it does is provide a level of comfort for our volunteers,” SMPD Chief Tim Jackman said of the large police presence. “Do I expect anything? No, but I would much rather be prepared.”
There was a brief training presentation by Noble to prepare the groups for their task.
One of the main points was how to identify a homeless person. The Human Services Division broke it down into simple ABCs: Attitude, Behavior and Condition.
Noble stressed that everyone participating in the count needed to respect the homeless and not interact with them.
Around 11 p.m. the presentation ended and the volunteers were given flashlights, hats, whistles, and clipboards with tally sheets.
Brian Buchner, a member of the Social Services Commission, almost lost his group in the confusion that ensued during the group roll calls. He eventually caught up with team 21 as they were about to leave. Team 21 consisted of Buchner, Amy Kivnick, a resident and active volunteer, Jesse Torres, a Cal State Northridge sophomore, and Rebecca James, a local writer.
The team had a fairly large piece of Santa Monica to cover — from Colorado Avenue to Pico Boulevard and Main Street to the beach boardwalk. The team of four stood outside of the Ken Edwards Center trying to figure out where they should start.
“It starts right here,” said Torres as he pointed to a homeless man, ready to make his first tally.
“No we’re not there yet,” Buchner said. “We don’t start yet.”
“That’s not us?” asked Kivnick as she pointed to the map provided by the city.
“I find this map a little confusing. I can’t see where the streets are,” James said as she squinted at the map.
Once the group became oriented they had a new challenge, determining if people were homeless or not. Since they were not allowed to approach people they were counting, volunteers had to guess using a set of criteria. Did the person have luggage or wear several layers of clothing?
“What about him?” Torres asked as the group observed a man standing near a bus stop.
The man showed no interest in boarding a bus, and instead walked away from it and began to pick up something off of the street.
“He’s collecting cigarette butts,” Kivnick said as Torres marked down the man’s location.
As the group approached a dark parking lot, Torres murmured, “I’m scared,” under his breath. It was hard to tell if he was being serious, but under the circumstances it was a possibility. Team 21 had to cover some dark corners of the beach boardwalk area. If something went wrong, it would take a few minutes for police to respond. The group became extra cautious as they carefully approached an encampment of homeless on the Richard Turner stairway next to the pier.
“There’s more down there,” Torres said, with a slight tone of fear in his voice as he pointed to the stairs below. Torres refused to descend any further to count the sleeping homeless until someone accompanied him. There turned out to be only two people, and they didn’t so much as stir when Torres marked them on his clipboard.
It was already midnight by the time team 21 reached Ocean Avenue. They still had a lot of ground to cover as they continued on, without complaint, towards Pico Boulevard. At that time, roughly 10 people were counted.
The official results of the citywide count will be released, along with a map where sightings were made, on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. The location is still to be determined.
“I think people have very complicated feelings about homeless folks,” Noble said. “I think, and I hope, we can agree that every homeless person counts.”