Courtesy Photo

Last Wednesday night, 247 volunteers fanned out across Santa Monica for the City’s Annual Homeless Count.

The purpose of the count is to assess the number and ages of homeless people and where they are so that public services can be targeted with the most effect. The volunteers were residents of Santa Monica and L.A. communities, and City staff.

Volunteers reflected a wide range of ages. It was really good to see so many people, young, old, and in between, staying out past our bedtimes to participate in this count.

On Wednesday, teams left the training at Saint Monica at midnight and worked through the night with some still arriving with their counts at 3 a.m. Thursday morning.

The charge to all who participated in the homeless count was, “It is OK to come back without finding anyone who is homeless,” but as idealistic as that is, we all know that we have many in our community who do not have regular, safe housing.

Wednesday night was, fortunately, a dry, balmy evening and we volunteers could all look forward to returning to our warm beds, but that wasn’t true for the many people our team and others encountered sleeping in doorways and alleyways; sidewalk pavement does not provide much protection from the cold and the damp.

The turnout to this essential event is always a heartening and visible reminder of our community’s commitment to helping our less fortunate neighbors. More than a dozen businesses contributed to the event and so many members of our community turned out. But, perhaps more than any who turned out Wednesday night, City staff deserves the credit for making this work.

The count was very well organized thanks to the staff of the City’s Community and Cultural Services Department and other City departments including the City Manager’s Office, Big Blue Bus, Fire, Police, Community and Government Relations, Office of Emergency Management, Office of Sustainability, Public Works and the Public Library.

SMPD officers and Park Rangers were there in large numbers to accompany teams going into downtown parking structures and certain parks.

Staff from other City departments were also there as volunteers. Their attendance was not required; instead they were there out of a commitment to Santa Monica and helping us all collect information necessary to meet the needs of our homeless population.

These volunteer staff persons received no overtime for their attendance, and most were back at their desks on Thursday morning.

Too often, City staff unfairly bears the brunt of public criticism about the City, but it is our observation that Santa Monica is fortunate to have such a highly qualified and committed staff working for all of us.

Biennial homeless counts are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a condition for receiving federal funds targeted to addressing the needs of the homeless. Santa Monica decided in 2010 to go above and beyond what was required and to begin conducting our homeless count every year to more rapidly identify and respond to the needs of people in our community experiencing homelessness.

Last year, volunteers counted 738 people sleeping in the streets, shelters, or in their vehicles, a reduction from the 2014 count of 742.

However, the number of unsheltered people bedding down on our streets was 402, an increase of 16 percent since 2014. The number of individuals sleeping in vehicles also increased, from 57 in 2014 to 73 in 2015. The 2015 decrease from 2014 was due to fewer individuals in shelters and institutions (336 in 2015 and 396 in 2014). This data is more than just statistics; it represents people, and thanks to our volunteers who carry out these counts, we know where the needs are and our City officials can take the steps necessary to fill those needs.

We are thankful for a City Council that provides more than lip service to addressing the needs of our homeless residents. Aside from the numerous City staffers and ordinary residents who turned out, several elected officials and appointed commissioners pulled together to help make the night a success.

Whether it is providing funding for the outreach and fully-integrated supportive services provided by OPCC, financing the development of permanent supportive housing by nonprofits like Step Up on Second, or numerous other homeless service programs, our City is a leader in helping the most vulnerable among us.

The City’s Homeless Action Plan, which is updated regularly, is available on the City’s website and establishes a vision statement, guiding principles, and refinements to the City’s homeless service system. The City’s approach is multi-pronged with strong interdepartmental coordination, which is the most effective way to address the need.

The results of the 2016 Homeless Count will be available in late February. Those of us participating for the first time will surely be there next year. The success of this volunteer effort makes us all proud to live in a city where the human needs of those less fortunate matter.

As this column is being written it is a very cold and windy night in Santa Monica. We are worried about those we saw sleeping in doorways, on the beach and throughout the city without shelter in the early morning hours of last Thursday. This is a problem that demands a solution; as we focus on those who do not have housing, we should also remember that while the challenges of affordable housing impact the people we count in this annual effort, they also impact those who are working, struggling, or otherwise seeking to find housing in our increasingly unaffordable city.

We as Santa Monica residents, in our warm homes tonight, must all commit to finding those solutions.

Leslie Lambert, Jason Islas, Judy Abdo, Carl Hansen, Jerry Rubin, Elena Christopoulos, Richard Brand, Craig Hamilton, Frederick Zimmerman, Cynthia Rose, and Jeremy Stutes for Santa Monica Forward. Read more at santamonicaforward.org.