Carrying cellphones and maps, thousands of volunteers ventured into the night on Tuesday and began looking for homeless people to measure their population in Los Angeles County.

As part of a three-day, 2024 Greater Los Angeles County Homeless Count, they will finish collecting data today, creating a rudimentary census of those homeless. Government officials who sent the volunteers underscored the importance of the annual count: It turns numbers into dollars from federal and state agencies for building shelters, affordable housing and providing wraparound services for mental health and substance abuse.

The homeless count, run by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority began in the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Santa Clarita valleys. Wednesday, volunteers scoured West Los Angeles, southeast Los Angeles and the South Bay/Harbor area. Today, the counters will cover Antelope Valley, central Los Angeles, Hollywood, south Los Angeles and in Metro train and bus stations.

Several L.A. officials gave pep talks and pleaded for more volunteers at a kickoff event in North Hollywood Tuesday, saying that funding from Measure HHH, which allows issuance of $1.2 billion in bonds for housing in L.A., and Measure H in L.A. County, estimated to raise $3.5 billion through 2027, is not enough to tackle the growing problem.

About a dozen people were sheltering outdoors near Tiara Street Park. Inside, officials gave speeches. Some of the homeless people were sleeping and others eating.

Armando Rodriguez, who identified himself as living on the streets, was offering slices of pizza to hungry homeless men.

“I think it (homeless count) it is a good idea,” he said. “They will have a good notion of how people live on the streets.”

Pasadena began its own count simultaneously with the LAHSA count Tuesday. Those volunteers returned to counting Wednesday. Glendale’s count was Wednesday. Long Beach’s independent tally begins today.

Outside a winter shelter in Pasadena on Tuesday evening, a young Black man waited to enter. He said he has been homeless for two years. As he spoke about his experiences, his eyes filled with tears.

“Give me a job. Let’s talk about that. Not how we don’t have a bed. I’m dying inside every night I have to sleep on the streets,” he said, declining to give his name.

At the kickoff in North Hollywood, Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman said the annual count is critical for Los Angeles in order to add to local funds.

“The homeless count gives us the numbers with which to ask for what we need from the federal government,” she said.

Los Angeles County Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger explained the count’s importance.

“Each year this census helps us understand where people are experiencing homelessness, helps us direct resources and services we all know are often lacking,” she said.

“We should use the findings to target cities and communities that need more resources and use the demographic data to identify trends and improve our strategies to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place,” Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn said in an email.

When asked about progress that can go unnoticed by the public who still see the homeless under freeways, in RVs along city and county streets, in train stations and parks, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who has made the issue a central part of her administration in 2023, shot back: “I can give you a list of neighborhoods where encampments are gone and people are housed and crime has been reduced. I want to acknowledge that significant work has been done.”

L.A. City Council President Paul Krekorian, whose district includes North Hollywood, spoke about progress as well.

“It may not seem like it sometimes, but we are making extraordinary progress,” he told the media and volunteers before the start of the count. “The city of Los Angeles has recently added 17,000 beds in interim shelters, while applications have been submitted for 10,000 units of affordable housing with half approved so far.”

New LAHSA commissioners Barger and Third District Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, who is chair, said they are keeping an eye on LAHSA.

“We have to be accountable and we will hold LAHSA accountable to the expectations of our community,” Horvath said.

Thousands of volunteers have begun crisscrossing 4,000 square miles of the county.

“This is my third year,” said volunteer Josh Davis, who was gathering his team Tuesday night. “I’ve noticed the city’s cohesion and the community service providers’ cohesion in collecting data to allow for funding opportunities.”

A final tally and report of the count is expected in late spring or early summer, said Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO of LAHSA, the agency responsible for reducing homelessness.

The 2023 count showed a 9% rise in homeless individuals over the previous year, amounting to 75,518 people experiencing homelessness in L.A. County. The city of Los Angeles had a 10% jump for a total of 46,260 homeless people, equal to the population of Encino. About 60% of the homeless are in the city of L.A.

Los Angeles declared a state of emergency on homelessness in December 2022, followed by a similar declaration by L.A. County in January 2023. Bass launched her Inside Safe initiative, responsible for bringing 2,000 Angelenos inside as of Jan. 10, 2024.

Long Beach declared a local emergency related to homelessness in January 2023, in response to a 62% uptick of homeless people tallied over a two-year period. Pasadena’s homelessness increased by 9%, according to the 2023 count.

Kellum said between 70% and 75% of the county’s homeless do not have any shelter, while the rest are in interim housing.

“We are calling this what it is: a humanitarian crisis,” she said, adding that in the past year LAHSA, along with city, county, federal and state partners is investing more dollars to help reduce homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development invested $2.8 billion in homeless assistance nationwide, said Jason Pu, regional administrator for Region IX. Homelessness in the U.S. grew by more than 12% in 2023 for a total of 653,104 people without shelter nationwide.

Shawn Pleasants, 57, who was homeless in Koreatown for several years before finding help, now works as a consultant and homelessness advocate in Van Nuys and co-chairs LAHSA’s lived experience advisory board.

When asked what a volunteer counter or a member of the public going about their day could do to make a difference, Pleasants said, “Showing compassion, which starts with something small, something as simple as saying ‘hello.’ Just to know that someone knew your name gives you that connectivity that made a huge difference day to day.”

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