Count: The annual event is required to receive federal funding. Courtesy image

As the sunset over Santa Monica on Wednesday, the temperature began to drop, falling from a cool 54 degrees around 5 p.m. to a chilly 47 after midnight. With sustained winds around eight miles per hour well into the evening, it was not a night many people would want to spend outdoors.

But being out in the cold is a reality for the tens of thousands of homeless people who reside in Los Angeles County, and on Wednesday night, Feb. 23, that reality was shared by the hundreds of volunteers who participated in the Santa Monica Homeless Count.

The Los Angeles area counts, which usually take place in late January in concert with other counts all over the United States, were postponed for about a month due to the winter COVID-19 surge. But nonetheless, Santa Monica Human Services Administrator Maggie Willis said, the Federal government prefers counts take place when the weather is cold.

“Part of the reason that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development picks the last weekend in January as the time to do the annual homeless count nationally is because there’s a kind of a belief that if you are a person experiencing homelessness on a cold, cold night in the dead of winter, you are the person that we should be focusing on,” Willis described. “It’s people who don’t have other options — people who don’t have friends or families that they can periodically stay with or, you know, people that may have trouble accessing shelter. It was a really cool night, but it also gives us a sense of who is really the most in need.”

Between the shifting schedule, lingering COVID-19 concerns, new protocols, late hour and cool temperatures, Willis said securing volunteers for this year’s count was a challenge, but by 11 p.m., the time when teams began to disperse around Santa Monica’s eight square miles, organizers were turning volunteers away.

“Santa Monica, in its usual fashion, came through absolutely beautifully,” Willis said. “We started the day about 15 teams short of what we would normally want to have, and we ended the night having to turn some people away, because we actually had more volunteers than we needed. So, it was really wonderful. The community came out. They answered our calls for help, and they turned up and it was wonderful.”

In an average year, volunteers gather at St. Monica’s Catholic Church to receive training and share food and camaraderie before heading out. This year, pre-formed teams arrived at a cold parking lot, received their assignments and went back out to cover their assigned territory.

More than 70 volunteer teams participate in each year’s count, including officers from the Santa Monica Police Department and City Hall employees who were asked to help. Each team is made up of three to four volunteers.

Many volunteers come back year after year; among them is a large contingent from Ismaili CIVIC, a Shia Ismaili Muslim community.

Five of the 30 Ismaili CIVIC volunteers who participated in this year’s homeless count were in touch with the Daily Press to describe their experiences participating in the annual event.

All five were asked how their participation shaped their perception of homelessness.

“Living in Los Angeles, homelessness is visible at all times,” volunteer Sabreena Merchant wrote. “It’s an unfortunate reality that we’ve almost become desensitized to. But it’s one thing to see during the day and another at night, and the count really forces you to empathize with the unhoused because you see them in the cold, with all their belongings, out in the open. The act of being able to observe them publicly for the count puts into stark relief how their circumstances differ from those who have consistent shelter.”

Naaila Hossain wrote that the physical act of participating in the count offered more of a sense of the realities of homelessness.

“Growing up in LA, homelessness is something you’re accustomed to seeing, but not accustomed to feeling,” Hossain wrote. “Participating in events like the homeless count pulls us out of our bubble and feel a side of LA we normally wouldn’t.”

Another volunteer, Azim Rajan, wrote that the count is a reminder that “it is not a ‘them and us.’ That these are people out of luck for whatever reason — job loss, mental sickness, addictions — and it could be any one.”

When asked what motivated them to participate, volunteer Zain Delawalla wrote: “As a Santa Monica resident, I see unhoused individuals around the City on a daily basis and while homelessness is a complex issue, I think we should all collectively do what we can do [to] be a part of the solution.”

Other volunteers credited the longstanding tradition of Ismaili CIVIC’s participation as what drew them to become involved.

Although it’s difficult for one single team to gauge how homelessness has changed based on their experiences alone, Hossain wrote that this year, she saw “people from all walks of life, and a lot of people.”

All the volunteers who responded praised the City of Santa Monica for facilitating the count, even with the new COVID-19 protocols. However, they all wrote that they were looking forward to breaking bread and bonding with fellow volunteers again when conditions allow.

“It would be great to return to normal, even though the City did a great job adjusting to the COVID environment,” Sheila Merchant wrote. “There’s a nice camaraderie when you get to be in a room with other folks coming together to participate in this important count, and I do miss that.”

Willis re-emphasized the importance of the count for the City’s allocation of limited resources to support the unhoused population — not to mention, Willis said, the tally is Federally mandated. Reflecting on the evening, volunteers illustrated why they feel the count is an important tool for the City.

“I think it shows good leadership from the City of Santa Monica that they managed to conduct an effective, contactless count given our health and safety restrictions,” Sabreena Merchant wrote. “Although the training video indicated that the City has seen an eight percent reduction in homelessness, anecdotally, it seems like the problem has worsened, so it’s important that the count was back to address the issue.”