LA Homeless count George Thomas

We left the Los Angeles Mission’s 156,000-square-foot building at 303 East Fifth Street a little past 9 o’clock on Thursday evening, Jan. 28. Both the scripture quote from Matthew engraved high on the front wall of the chapel (“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”) and the equally high-minded words from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, L.A. County Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Executive Director Peter Lynn and L.A. Mission President Herb Smith urged the counters on.

The mission of the group I and my editor/photog were tagging along with on this not-so-chilly winter’s evening?

To do a point-in-time count of homeless people in census tract no. 2063008 on Skid Row.

The biannual enumeration, known as the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, was conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority over three days last month. It was moved up a year after the 2015 count found a 12 percent jump in homeless men, women and children from the previous year. But what really grabbed the attention of elected officials, as well as the public, was that the number of makeshift encampments, tents and vehicles people were living in soared by 85 percent to 9,535.

Trained personnel counted more than 44,350 homeless individuals in the county, including nearly 26,000 in the City of Los Angeles last year.

Now we were out on East Fifth Street, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas in front setting a healthy pace. Dressed in a newspaper boy’s cap and black-on-gray college letter jacket, he didn’t seem to notice the stench. But you didn’t have to breathe hard to inhale the urine-stained sidewalks. Staff from his second district office in suits walked behind, along with LASHA people, including two outreach workers, and a print reporter — adding up to a dozen in our moving nighttime caravan.

“Hey! What you all doin’?” asked a guy. But no one slowed down to answer.

Grace Weltman, director of policy and planning at LASHA, turned to me. “Because of the mild weather right now, people are gonna be more out and about,” she said, looking across Wall Street at a row of pup tents. “So one of the things we recommend is we don’t want folks getting close to the tents. So we’re counting across the street. Because how we’re viewing it is this is where they’re sleeping. And so when we get too close, they get agitated. And so that’s why we have outreach workers here with the supervisor. These guys are here all the time, and they know where the homeless spots are.”

“How you all doing?” asked another man sitting on the sidewalk.

“Good. How are you this evening?” she returned.

“All right. Can I have a blessing?”

“Me, too.”

Weltman turned back to me. “But the homeless count is always something we take very seriously,” the former adjunct professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development pointed out. “And we’re counting every year now. So next January we’re going through the same process. It’s a good way to measure where we’re at. ‘Cause when you wait every two years [as done in recent years], it changes. It grows. It may decrease.

“What’s been helpful for us in this year’s count is all the work we’ve done with the El Niño planning,” she went on. “We’ve been doing what we call ‘targeted outreach’ in identifying places — spots where there are concentrations of homeless people in the rivers and so forth. So that has allowed us to really hone in on when we’re doing our count now, having better data in terms of where we might find people.”

Tarp encampments

A calypso tune blared from the Green Apple Coffee and Subs corner store at Fifth and Wall streets. Four men were standing outside under a streetlight.

“Here’s what we’ve seen is our encampments have gotten larger,” Weltman pointed out. “See the white tarp right here over three tents. They’ve created a larger space for themselves. So you wouldn’t count three tents with a tarp like that. Just one. And see the people standing outside. That means they’re standing in front of their dwelling.”

She explains how more in-depth “demographic” interviews were done before the more publicized head count. This allowed LASHA to compile all the data and produce something called an “aggregate multiplier.” It boiled down to being able to assign numbers to folks living in cars (1.15 people) and RVs (1.7) along in the tents (1 or 2). So tonight’s visual count, which seems a little hit and miss to this sociology major, was just one component of the whole homeless enumeration.

Southwest on Wall, down Sixth and up San Julian to a small park with its high iron bars, locked tight for the night. Tents formed a parameter. Men slouched against the bars.

“Hey, guys,” said the LASHA administrator. “We’re counters.”

“Well, I’ll be God damned,” one called out. “Yeah, try to close downtown for me.”

“Yeah, go back up where you belong, mother [expletive]!” said another, spitting at our feet.

By 9:30 p.m. we were back where we started in the bus station-like room of the Los Angeles Mission, wood benches all around. But Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas didn’t sit down. Although no stranger to Skid Row, even after dark, his almost jaunty walking demeanor was subdued.

“Um, it’s depressing,” he told me. “It’s heartbreaking to have to come to grips with human beings who find themselves in such circumstances.” His deep voice was just above a whisper, with words separated by pauses. “And it adds a different level of meaning to public policy making. It’s one thing to sit behind a desk and try to make policy. It’s another thing to stare the issues directly in the face, literally.

“What’s even more disturbing is how the problem as such has extended well beyond Skid Row. And it means that we have not done all that we could and should do. We have lost ground — there’s no question in my mind about it — in the fight against homelessness.

“But the larger question is the fight against poverty,” he stressed. “And so to the extent that is the case, we really have to come to grips with what affordable housing is about, what income inequality is about, and what mental health services and supportive services are about. Still, we cannot give up on this fight here in Skid Row. Cannot. Will not. Must not.”

Sick and tired

George Thomas, a former homeless addict and now an outreach worker for LAHSA, had walked shoulder to shoulder with Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, pointing out growing encampments, rising sidewalk tents and people he knew were living on the street. The East L.A. and South L.A. 57-year-old native started coming down to Skid Row back in the early 1970s.

“I had a nice home, I had a family,” he confided after the count. “But I got out on the wrong foot. I hung with the wrong crowd, grew up fast. And I thought that life was better out there in the street. I had a friend, an older guy who was drinking. I wanted to be like him. I brought [my drinking] down here with me. And I got stuck.”

Thomas drank and sold drugs for more than seven years. He went through the Fred Jordon Mission, a Baptist place called “Gravy Joe’s,” the Midnight Mission and the Los Angeles Mission. They all helped. He always fell back, however, to his street addiction. His own regular spot was Fifth and Crocker.

“But I got clean, and the Lord blessed me,” he said. “And I’ve been with my church in Compton, the Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church, for over 11 years.”

He was asked, “OK, how did you finally change?”

“I got out because I realize that what I was, it wasn’t me,” he explained. “Because I got sick and tired of my mother, my family, my friends seeing me. I got tired of hurting other people. I didn’t want to continue being a statistic to jail or in the grave. So I wanted my life to change. I knew that there was something better in me. But I had to find it. And through the help of people and God …” and his words trailed off.

But could it happen to others hardcore down-and-outers, like those just counted on Skid Row?

“Yeah. But you’ve got to realize in your heart that you failed. You’ve got to want to get the help. Nobody can give it to you. So unless you accept it, it’s not gonna work. You’ve got to become sick and tired of your situation. You’ve got to say, ‘I want out.’ And I guarantee you, if you become sick and tired — and put it in the hands of God — you will never turn back.”

Note: Results of the 2016 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count will be released later this year.

Sad stats from 2015 homeless count

Last year’s Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reported a number of disturbing findings:

> The homeless population jumped by 12 percent from the previous year;

> There were more than 44,350 homeless individuals, including nearly 26,000 in the City of Los Angeles;

> Most were concentrated in five downtown census tracts, including Skid Row. Next were Santa Monica and Hollywood, followed by smaller clusters in South Los Angeles and Pomona.

> The number of makeshift encampments, tents and vehicles where people were living soared by 85 percent from 5,335 to 9,535. Neighborhoods for those living out of their vehicles were centered in South Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley and Westchester. Outside of Skid Row, encampments cropped up all over Los Angeles County, but especially near the 110 Freeway, north and south of downtown, plus in the South Bay part of the 405;  

> The ranks of the chronically homeless those who have been homeless for a year or more or who’ve had at least four homeless episodes in the last three years climbed by 60 percent;

> The number of homeless family members rose by 12 percent, from 6,678 to 7,505;

> But there was hardly any growth in the number of homeless veterans. The number remained flat at about 4,000.