Coming to our census

Counting people for the federal census is to counting for Santa Monica as Marine basic training is to life coaching. The effort last week by volunteers on behalf of the city was part of a greater L.A. County mission to enumerate the population of what the feds call "emergency and transitional shelter populations" and what the rest of us know as the homeless.

In order to qualify for funding, local governments are required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide this information every two years. Some municipalities, such as Santa Monica, perform the function every year to establish a baseline of need for federal, state and local funds, and to allocate their resources appropriately.

Two years ago, the L.A. County tally was about 48,000 individuals regularly sleeping without benefit of permanent shelter. In Santa Monica last year, 742 people were identified as homeless. Those figures include both the street population and people found in shelters, transitional programs, hospital emergency rooms and jails.

We volunteers gathered late Wednesday night at the Civic Auditorium for training that felt more like a Chamber of Commerce mixer than a low-tech shoe-leather operation. When I signed on in 2000 as a federal enumerator, the process involved a loyalty oath, reams of paperwork in triplicate and pencils, clipboards and flashlights identified by alphanumeric code. In Santa Monica, training was catered. Local establishments provided gourmet sandwiches, crudités, fruit, cookies and coffee with little hazelnut creamers.

The purpose of the first U.S. census in 1790 was to quantify the nation's population in order to determine Congressional representation and to pay the debt of the American Revolution by apportioning it equally among the revolters. It was a clever formula that rewarded an artificial inflation of numbers for greater Congressional muscle with a higher fee for freedom. Additional purposes have piled onto the 23 subsequent decennial censuses, but in addition to congressional division, one constant has been the use of temporary enumerators. The 1790 census fell within the portfolio of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who paid U.S. marshals $1 for every 50 people counted. In 2000, I was paid $14 for every hour worked. In Santa Monica in 2011, we were paid in Peet's coffee and swag bags containing a Santa Monica Library retractable tape measure, Santa Monica Police SWAT-branded sugar-free mints and a fridge magnet imploring you to Buy Local Santa Monica.

About 170 of the 200 volunteers accepted showed up for the midnight gig. Our job was to enumerate individuals and vehicles sheltering them in outdoor, public places. Apparently we small-town Santa Monicans all know each other--training began with remarks by a male and a female who were not introduced. The guy was Mayor Richard Bloom, who gave the standard go-team pep talk, and the lady was Maggie Willis of the Human Services Division. City brass also waved the flag in the persons of Fire Chief Scott Ferguson and Police Chief Tim Jackman, and 25 or so uniformed cops lined the periphery of the room. They would be watching our backs.

By 12:30 Thursday morning when most of the teams had hit the streets, we had learned that the 2010 count had yielded 19% fewer homeless people than 2009. We learned the ABCs of homeless ID--appearance, behavior and condition. We learned that "flashlights are for papers, not people," because we were supposed to be stealth counters. We were not to awaken, engage or in any way disturb people sleeping outside or in cars. This was decidedly different from my federal experience, when we were obliged to extract as much information as possible in interviews with people classified then as "nonsheltered, outdoor location," whom we bribed with hygiene kits that proved wildly popular along with information about veterans' benefits, which we wholly lacked.

Chris, Shahab and I were the team assigned to a Sunset Park neighborhood about a mile from my house and, action-wise, more boring than my back yard. We figured it would take maybe an hour to survey the tract and that we'd probably tally zero homeless which was, Willis said, "a valid number," and also a desirable one.

It was a clear, cool night, and the quarter moon hung huge and low in the east. We moved with alacrity down the streets and up the alleys, undisturbed by cars or pedestrians. It felt like Halloween, late, as if we were the last ones out and all the candy was gone. Except for a stretch along Pico, this was a dark, residential neighborhood punctuated by the light from a big screen TV here, a computer monitor there and not even one barking dog.

We paused at the occasional scruffy van to inspect for condensation, window coverings, sounds and movement from within. Most bore preferential parking stickers, a clear sign of, if not affluence, at least residence, and we rejected them as outside our demographic. About 45 minutes into the survey, we passed two shabby cars parked on Pearl Street that lacked permits. One was stuffed with articles indicating either a remarkably mobile storage system, or what otherwise would be a closet. We tallied it. The second car's windshield was obscured with an aluminum shade, but we could see a man slouched in the front seat. He wasn't sleeping, but he looked exhausted. We tallied him.

Farther east on 20th Street we approached a house for sale with a flier box next to the sidewalk. We slowed our brisk pace and looked at each other. We each took a flier and examined it farther up the block under a streetlight. 2 BR, 1 BA, 1,242 APX SF. LP: $849,000.
A block and a half north, an alley narrowed into an isolated walkway leading to Pico. It was blocked by a shopping cart piled with personal effects that obscured a human-sized lump lying on the ground under a gray blanket. Was it one or more people? Certainty required unwarranted and impermissible intrusion. We tallied one person, noted the address and moved on.

Along Pico, we checked the nooks and crannies by the taco joint, the Fosters Freeze, the picket-fenced motel and several silent, small commercial establishments en route to the car. It was 2 o'clock. What had seemed earlier to be a breezy neighborhood jaunt had been a physically demanding 90-minute mission. Chris anticipated an unproductive, sore day at work. Shahab said he was whipped. I tried to ignore the blister on my right foot. Within the hour, we all would climb into a warm bed with clean sheets in houses we called our own. Hundreds in Santa Monica, tens of thousands in L.A. County, do not. And every day they wake up tired and sore.


More by Ellen Alperstein:
Magic mountain
The uneven playing field of workers' compensation
Horsing around in Del Mar
Two Jews walk into a Catskills hotel...
Continuing education at the county fair
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