Volunteers comb the streets of Santa Monica to take stock of the city’s homeless population

By Danny Karel

A volunteer logs a downtown encounter during last week’s Santa Monica Homeless Count
Photo by Jason Abraham / City of Santa Monica

At around 10:30 p.m. last Wednesday (Jan. 23), a small line for coffee began to form in the courtyard of St. Monica’s Catholic High School. A half-hour later, nearly 400 people — a mix of volunteers, police officers and public officials — awaited the stroke of midnight to begin the 2019 Santa Monica homeless count. It was a cold night, but the mood was cheerful.

Homeless counts happen each year throughout Greater Los Angeles, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because they help determine the allocation of funding to address this local, regional and national crisis.

“It’s the starting point for us to get the data that we use to inform policy throughout the year,” explained Santa Monica City Councilman Terry O’Day.

“Before we started doing the homeless count, our estimates were wild. I remember on one of the early estimates, I had a plus or minus 50% margin of error. It was crazy. What are you supposed to do with that statistic?” added Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D- Santa Monica), who previously served on the Santa Monica City Council. Bloom has participated in every count for the last 15 years, when L.A. County adopted the practice from New York.

Homeless count volunteers are divided into small groups and sent to comb every block of the city’s 8.3 square miles. Some walk, some drive, and some use a combination of both. They utilize a clipboard, a map of their assigned census area and tally sheets to record their findings.

The late departure accounts for the sleeping patterns of the local homeless population — after midnight, people experiencing homelessness are likely to be asleep or stationary, making them easier to count. Teams head out after a one-hour safety and information seminar and tend to return with data sometime between 1:30 and 2:30 a.m.

For volunteers, it’s an opportunity to understand homelessness in a deeper way than a daytime passerby.

“The homeless count is a really important societal effort, and I think it’s got a lot of meaning,” said Jon Sherin, Director of LA County’s Department of Mental Health. “It recognizes this massive issue in our culture and brings people together.”

For some volunteers, participating in the count has become a tradition.

“This is my sixth one,” volunteer Andrea Korb, an economic develop manager for Downtown Santa Monica Inc., said with a smile. “I’ve done it in New York, where in some ways it feels more dire. We do it at the same time of year and it can be extremely cold there — think 20 degrees with snow on the ground.”

The homeless population in New York is larger than in Los Angeles, but the vast majority of homeless people in New York utilize the city’s expansive shelter system, made all the more necessary by potentially lethal weather conditions.

Around 5% of NYC’s homeless population remains on the street; in Los Angeles County it hovers around 75%, according to the results of last year’s homeless count.

“I look at the homeless situation and the homeless environment as an outdoor asylum,” said Sherin.

After a surge in homelessness throughout Los Angeles County over the past six years, the overall number of homeless people identified throughout the region dipped 4% between the January 2017
and January 2018 counts — but that’s still an astonishing total of 52,765 homeless people.

In Santa Monica alone, the homeless population has increased in recent years, up from 921 in 2017 to 957 last year, prompting additional city investment of $1.4 million to homeless services. It’s likely that the number of homeless in Santa Monica could rise again this year, but we won’t know until results are released in March.

Inside the assembly room at St. Monica, a poster showed the distribution of people counted in last year’s survey. Large blue circles, representing groups of five or more, were heavily clustered along Ocean Avenue and in the neighborhood surrounding Third Street. The further east, the more diffuse the population became.

This year, Team 12 of the count was assigned several of the crucial blocks in the downtown area, from Wilshire Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard, between 1st Court Alley and 4th Street. They were led by Nick Efron, a three-year homeless count veteran.

As public space manager for Downtown Santa Monica Inc., Efron confronts the issue of homelessness on a daily basis and meets twice monthly with the Santa Monica Police Department’s Homeless Liaison Program to discuss “hotspots.”

Teams are assigned an area, but they get to choose their route. Efron decided on a snaking pattern, starting close to the beach and moving inland. They were instructed to avoid Third Street Promenade, which received its own census team.

Volunteers in the group were talkative at times, but would fall silent as they turned down a new street or alley.

“There’s one,” someone would whisper. The group would stop, confirm, and Efron would make a note.

They spotted people sprawled on benches, hidden beneath sheets of cardboard, and huddled under awnings, still awake in the cold night. Police cruisers roamed the streets, often using lights without sirens.

When Team 12 returned to St. Monica at around 1:30 a.m., they’d counted a total of 13 people. That’s fewer people than they’d expected, but only time will tell whether it’s a sign that things are getting better or just another example of just how perplexing addressing homelessness can be.