A homeless person seeks shelter underneath the stairs of Santa Monica Place when the weather turns from bad to worse.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY WIDE — U.S. Census Bureau workers are gearing up to count the nation’s homeless as part of the 2010 Census at the end of March, a once-per-decade effort that this year will rely heavily on the expertise of local homeless service providers.

In Santa Monica, which conducts an annual count of its homeless population and completed its latest count last week, that means reaching out to City Hall and independent non-profit service providers to ensure a thorough survey.

John Maceri, who chairs the Westside Shelter & Hunger Coalition and is executive director of Santa Monica-based OPCC, said the last census in 2000 fell short of the goal of providing an accurate picture of the country’s homelessness problem. But this year he said the census appears to be taking a different approach.

“It feels to me this time like there’s much more of a focused effort and they’ve started earlier,” he said.

The count will take place during the last three days in March. One day will be devoted to surveying shelters and other temporary living facilities, another day will be focused on holding “be counted” events where free food and other giveaways will be offered, and the last day will be for seeking out the homeless on the streets.

Cherie Beasley, a partnership specialist with the U.S. Census who is assisting with the homeless count in Los Angeles County and other areas, said local service providers are a key part of preparing for a job that can seem daunting.

“They’re helping us by identifying places [where] homeless people congregate” and by providing facilities for events, she said. “We have reached out to them and we’ve had an overwhelming response.”

Events aimed at attracting the homeless will be held March 30 nationwide. No events have yet been scheduled for Santa Monica.

Advocates for the homeless agree that coming up with an accurate count is the first step in obtaining adequate resources.

Locally, City Hall has insisted on an annual count to gauge the success it is having with programs for the homeless it funds.

Between 2007 and 2009 Santa Monica saw an 8 percent drop in its homeless population, with 915 homeless people tallied in last year’s count, 480 of whom were encountered on the street, rather than at a shelter, said Setareh Yavari, City Hall’s homeless services administrator.

“For us as a city it’s a benchmark. It is about resources, it is about how we direct our resources, it is … [about] the impact that our efforts are having on ending homelessness in our community,” she said.

Yavari said her department is providing support for the census by making facilities available for the count and by providing information on sites where homeless people can be found on the streets.

“We’re definitely a partner with them … in trying to make this a meaningful census and we’re happy to work with them,” she said.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, had more than 48,000 homeless in 2009, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s latest count, making the area the nation’s capital of homelessness.

Maceri said it’s likely the census data will confirm that ranking.

“I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said.

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