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Groups of volunteers walk through Santa Monica and count the homeless population on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CIVIC CENTER — Roaming the streets of Santa Monica at 2 a.m. probably isn’t what most people envision when they think of public service.

But that’s how about 170 volunteers paid their dues this week, spanning out across the city’s eight square miles beginning just after midnight on Wednesday. Clipboards in hand, their mission was to tally each person living on Santa Monica’s streets.

It’s an annual event put on by City Hall’s Human Services Division aimed at both gauging the effectiveness of local efforts to reduce homelessness and creating an up-to-date database that all levels of government can use when dolling out grants.

Together with figures from Santa Monica’s homeless shelters and hospitals, the street count numbers provide a snapshot of the city’s homeless population.

Last year, volunteers counted 742 individuals, representing a roughly 19 percent decrease from 2009.

Results from this year’s tally — the fifth Santa Monica has conducted — will be announced Feb. 28 at a meeting of the Social Services Commission, according to Natasha Guest, an administrative analyst for City Hall’s homelessness team.

The federal Housing and Urban Development Department requires counties to conduct homeless counts every two years, Guest said, but since 2009 Santa Monica has opted to hold an annual event.

“We really want to have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on and how our population changes over time,” she said.

This year, the count took place on a January night that could have passed for summer in most parts of the country. The unseasonably warn weather, Guest said, could skew the number of homeless counted on the streets upward, since it’s possible fewer homeless individuals opted to spend the night in a shelter.

By 11 p.m. Wednesday, the volunteers, along with more than 30 police officers and Human Services staff members, had gathered at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to receive their instructions. They headed out in small groups to comb every inch of Santa Monica, from the ritziest North of Montana neighborhoods to the roofs of Downtown parking structures to the freeway underpasses that sometimes serve as shelters.

Some of them, like life-long Santa Monican Eric Faber, were veterans of all five counts City Hall has organized.

“I care about our community and I know homelessness has always been a major issue,” Faber, a member of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. board of directors, said. “I’m really interested in seeing the impact of the programs that we have.”

In Faber’s area, which consisted of the Third Street Promenade and the Santa Monica Pier, 17 homeless people were counted.

Other volunteers, like Hafeez Lakhani, a writer who moved to Venice from New York three weeks ago, were learning Santa Monica’s landscape for the first time as they pitched in.

Lakhani was part of a group of 37 volunteers from the Ismaili Culture Center that took part in the count.

“I thought it sounded like a cool way to get into the community,” he said.

At least two participants, Alan Blecker and Sharon Byrne, took a mini road trip to lend a hand. The pair drove down from Santa Barbara, hoping to learn by doing ahead of a planned homeless count in their own city next month.

Naomi Wolman, a psychiatrist who works with homeless patients at the Edelman Westside Mental Health Center, left the event with more than a sense of fulfillment.

Despite working with the mentally ill homeless on a regular basis, she said walking down empty, quiet roads at night to tally the most vulnerable members of the community had an emotional impact on her.

“It’s different when you walk in the streets and really see how people live,” she said

nickt@www.smdp.com

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