Los Angeles, United States – Standing with his back to the Los Angeles opera house, Dion Smith looks around, sceptically.
“Maybe we should shake the trees,” he jokes. “Because I don’t think they’re gonna be any around here.”
He is sceptical because he has been sent out into the streets of this well-to-do, well-lit neighbourhood for a reason: to count the number of people living on the streets here.
Smith is one of thousands of volunteers who signed up to participate in homeless counts across the country. The counts, which happen over a series of nights in late January, have become something of an American tradition. Local governments have to conduct a count at least every other year in order to receive federal funding for services for the homeless.
Smith’s team is counting in downtown Los Angeles, home to one of the most highly concentrated homeless populations in the country. But about 15 minutes in, they have not yet encountered a single person sleeping on the street in the area they’re canvassing.
The conversation turns to gentrification. And then, the group heads into an underpass, a cavernous tunnel with white-tiled walls that echo with the din of speeding cars.
Almost right away, they pass a man curled up on the ground, feet sticking out from under a red fleece blanket. The group walks past him on the narrow pavement, just inches from the relentless flow of traffic. Smith’s friend Tony Breckenridge, who works in mental health services for the homeless, is holding the team’s clipboard and counting form. He quietly marks down a tick.
Moments later, the group passes another man, lying on his side in a blue sleeping bag. Then another, and another: a man sleeping on a bed of newspapers; a person with a grey fleece blanket pulled tight over their head and a rubbish bag-pillow. Tick, tick, tick.
When the group of volunteers emerges from the tunnel about 15 minutes later, they have counted 11 people sleeping there.
“What we just did made my stomach hurt,” Smith says. “I’ve seen some stuff, but this is too far inhumane.”
It’s his first time participating in the homeless count.
Counting the homeless
The annual homeless count is a herculean effort. In Los Angeles, volunteers cover more than 10,000 square kilometres, block by block. Statistics from the street count are combined with demographic survey data and numbers from homeless service providers to reach an estimated figure for a community’s homeless population.
That figure is enormously important – the federal government relies heavily on homeless count data in deciding how to allocate resources.
Other organisations and agencies use statistics from the count to assess the success of particular programmes and to decide which segments of the homeless population should be targeted for more support.
All over the country, data from the count shapes policies and strategies on homelessness for the coming year.
In order to gather that vital information on homeless populations across the country, the volunteers charged with counting the homeless first have to find them. And that’s not always easy.
Out of sight
“I associated homelessness with Skid Row,” says Amiyoko Shabazz, referring to the area of downtown Los Angeles dominated by people living in tents and other makeshift homes. “But the reality is that anyone can be a paycheque away from being homeless.”
Shabazz is a tall, softly-spoken woman in her mid-30s. She goes roller-skating each Thursday. “I’m a natural roller-skater,” she says, conspiratorially.
Shabazz has lived in Los Angeles since she was three years old, when she moved from Texas with her mother. She had a difficult childhood, she says. Her father wasn’t around, and her mother developed a drug addiction. She was often left to take care of her younger siblings alone.
Then, in 2010, Shabazz was introduced to cocaine. She was evicted from her apartment and says it all went downhill from there.
After five years of homelessness, Shabazz finally got into stable housing about two years ago, and started to turn things around. Now, she volunteers with homeless service organisations. She actually gave a short speech at the pre-count training event that Smith and Breckenridge attended.
But when Shabazz was homeless, she never knew about the count. She is not sure if she was ever counted – and it’s possible that she never was. Because, during those five years, Shabazz says she moved around – sometimes living with relatives, sometimes with an abusive partner; at times she stayed at a treatment centre, in shelters or her car.
Moving around like that is relatively common, homeless campaigners say, especially among women and young people. The stereotypical image of homelessness – a person sleeping outside, on the street – doesn’t apply to many people who experience homelessness. And Anne Miskey, the chief executive of the Downtown Women’s Center, a homeless service provider based in Skid Row, says that when women do sleep on the street, they tend to “hide themselves away”.
“We know that women will hide, whether it be in automobiles or in places you generally don’t see a lot of the homeless population,” she says. “Being on the streets is scary for anybody, but you can imagine how much more vulnerable women are.”
That poses a problem for the homeless count, because if people aren’t on the street or visible in a car when the volunteers pass by, there is no guarantee they will be counted. The Los Angeles count does include statistics from shelters, but homeless campaigners say that women and young people often avoid shelters, because they don’t always feel safe in them, either.
It can be a vicious cycle, Miskey says, because if a certain segment of the homeless population is undercounted, it can mean less funding targeting that group from the agencies and organisations that rely on count statistics to allocate resources.
“It all ties in together,” she says. “When there’s less visibility, there’s less awareness that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Homeless service agencies across the country know that the street count alone isn’t enough to capture the full scope of local homelessness. And some, such as the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), have been making a concerted effort to better count the more difficult-to-find members of their homeless communities.
There’s the Youth Count, which is separate from the general street count and is designed to specifically target people under 25. Los Angeles County is one of about 20 across the country that conducts a youth count, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
There are also new women-focused questions that were added to the demographic survey this year, after last year’s count measured a spike in the number of homeless women.
And that’s not all, LAHSA spokeswoman Naomi Goldman says.
“Separately, we’re working with Los Angeles county sheriffs to get data on people in jails and in hospitals,” she says. “That information doesn’t go to [the federal government], because it doesn’t meet their definition of homelessness, but it’s useful … to get a comprehensive look at the vulnerable population.”
Of course, there’s still work to be done, Miskey says. But she is encouraged by the recent efforts Los Angeles county has made to reach the less-visible portion of the homeless community.
“As [we get] more data, and build the awareness, you get more political will,” she says. “Los Angeles is actually doing incredibly well, compared with any other city around the country, on this issue.”
‘I want to get counted for’
In her speech at the count training event, Shabazz opened with an anecdote. A couple of days before the count began, Shabazz told the volunteers, she met a man at the 7/11 near her house. He was homeless, she says; asking for change.
“I was like ‘Man, make sure you get counted for the homeless count … If you see people and they look weird, don’t run. I need you to get counted for. And I need you to tell your homeless friends to get counted for,'” she says.
“And he says, ‘I want to get counted for.’ And that gave me hope.”
Later, as they walked back from the count, Breckenridge and Smith recalled Shabazz’s speech. Its underlying message – that simply counting the homeless population is, in and of itself, meaningful – had echoed throughout the training event. It was also reflected in LAHSA’s slogan for the count: They Count, Will You?
But it was a message neither Breckenridge nor Smith was completely sold on.
“You can count the starving mouths, but it doesn’t matter until you feed them,” Breckenridge says. “Still, I’m happy to get the ball rolling.”
A couple of moments later, Breckenridge and Smith pass a woman sitting on the street. “That lady back there, I’ve been seeing her in that same spot for seven years,” Smith says.
“Yeah,” Breckenridge responds. “When you find a spot where you feel safe, you stay there.”