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Tallying local homeless

Volunteers fan out across the Santa Clarita Valley to document homelessness

Posted: February 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Bret Wims, treasurer for Bridge To Home, drives on Rotunda Road as he and a team of volunteers look for possible homeless encampments in Valencia as part of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count on Thursday evening.

 

Two men wearing matching white T-shirts stood amid the sparsely lit playground equipment at Valencia Meadows Park in the darkness.

They scan the park, taking in the surroundings: playground equipment, a group of teenagers playing with a light-up Frisbee, a young couple sitting in a parked car.

But no sign of what they are looking for.

And so it is back to the car, sighs of mild disappointment hanging in the chilly night air.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says Bret Wims, a member of the Santa Clarita Valley’s homeless shelter board of directors. “I really want to find them out here, but at the same time part of me hopes they don’t have to stay out on a night like this.”

The night is young and the park is but one of the places the duo will inspect for homeless individuals.

“I know they’re there,” Wims says, settling himself in the front seat of the car. “I know.”

Jason Abrahamson takes the passenger seat, resting a clipboard on his lap.

“Where to next?” he asks.

And so it is off to the next road, the next park, the next parking lot — any place that might be a nighttime refuge for a member of Santa Clarita’s homeless population.



The count

Wims and Abrahamson were two of the approximately 60 volunteers who scanned the Santa Clarita Valley on Thursday night to conduct a census of sorts on the area’s homeless population — part of a countywide count.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority conducts the count every two years to gather information about both the number and the make-up of that population.

Thursday night marked the first time the count has been done in the city of Santa Clarita. As a result, this year’s count will provide more specific information as to the extent of homelessness within city boundaries.

For planning purposes, the Homeless Services Authority splits the county into eight service areas. The Santa Clarita Valley is lumped in with the San Fernando Valley in one such service area.

This is why a city-specific count is so beneficial, said Tim Davis, the executive director of the agency Bridge to Home, which runs the Santa Clarita Valley Emergency Winter Shelter.

“When you cover such a large area, you really can’t break it down in granular detail,” Davis said. “But with something like this, you can get more specificity and that’s very helpful.”

Davis and other officials from the shelter helped organize the volunteer effort for Thursday’s count.

Both Wims, Bridge to Home’s treasurer, and Abrahamson, the vice president, were among the Bridge to Home officials who decided to volunteer.



The criteria

Outside of a blunt question, how exactly does one determine if a person is homeless?

While it is far from an exact science, the Homeless Services Authority does provide a list — the so-called ABCs — of how to determine if a person is homeless.

First, look at a person’s appearance. Are they wearing many layers of clothing or carrying a blanket? Do they appear to be in poor health or holding a lot of possessions?

Next is behavior, such as people pushing a cart loaded up with belongings or sleeping in a public area.

Finally is the condition of the individual’s vehicle. Is it loaded with possessions or packed with blankets? Does it look like it has been parked in a particular place for a while?

These were all the questions Abrahamson and Wims had to consider while driving and walking around Valencia Thursday night.

But some uncertainty still remained about whom to count.

Wims drove the car past the parking lot of an auto parts store, where a man in a heavy coat and a stocking cap was pacing back and forth, talking on a cell phone.

He didn’t appear to be going anywhere, didn’t seem to have any particular reason for being where he was.

“That’s one?” Wims asked.

“That’s one,” Abrahamson confirmed.



The condition

While much of the criteria for Thursday’s count involved looking for the more readily associated signs of homelessness, some of the homeless people in and around Santa Clarita are harder to spot.

“We had a guy at the shelter who showed up every day in a suit and tie,” Abrahamson said. “The face of homelessness isn’t always what you think of as ‘typical.’ They’re your neighbor, my neighbor.”

“Sometimes homelessness is just a result of people being down on their luck,” he said.

A sizable portion of the local homeless population also has cars and/or cell phones, amenities kept even after the loss of a house.

“You can live in your car,” Wims said. “But you can’t drive your house.”



The conclusion

Thursday’s count was the conclusion of four days of counts covering every portion of Los Angeles County aside from Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach, which do their own, independent counts.

The Homeless Services Authority will compile and release the results some time in the next four to six months, Davis estimated.

Specifics that arise from Thursday’s count could make it easier to identify specific areas of need within Santa Clarita, or to write grants to fund homeless-care efforts, Davis said.

Lmoney@signalscv.com

661-287-5525

On Twitter @LukeMMoney

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