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Who's counting?

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Just before midnight last night, fortified by turkey sandwiches, M&M cookies and industrial-strength coffee, 270-some volunteers assembled at St. Monica's Catholic Church in Santa Monica for a tutorial on counting the city's homeless population.

As part of the biennial federal effort to quantify the number of people in the U.S. who go to sleep every night somewhere other than their own beds, as many as 6,000 L.A. County volunteers will wield pencils over three nights this week. They're busy, because the county is second only to New York City in the size of its homeless population.

Santa Monica is a census overachiever. It takes homeless attendance every year in order to apportion resources where they're needed most, including $2.6 million in grants to various local homeless service agencies. The drill requires a community assist to cover block by block each of the city's 19 federal census tracts. Last night was the largest volunteer turnout of Santa Monica's five-year homeless census history, with 69 teams participating.

We volunteers were not to question, advise or otherwise engage people we deemed to be homeless, but merely to note where they were and, if possible, their age, gender and circumstances of slumber -- in a car? On a sidewalk? In a group? In a makeshift shelter? Counting the homeless residing in established shelters, jails and hospitals is left to officials (that is, people with expertise who are paid to exercise it) -- we, in popular parlance, were the boots on the ground.

Veterans of Santa Monica's homeless census look forward to the bribery component of the 45-minute lesson in how and where to look, how to fill out the forms and how to respect the rights and privacy of those we enumerate. We know that Maggie Willis, Santa Monica's Human Services administrator, and Officer Robert Martinez of the SMPD's Homeless Liaison Program, would buy our attention with raffle items from the usual suspects: gift certificates from Santa Monica Place, Pacific Park, The Lobster, Border Grill...

We veterans knew that "flashlights are for papers, not people," we knew that private property was off-limits and we waited to see if we won the newest raffle offering Willis announced: "Some of you are going home tonight with a box of worms!"

This is Santa Monicaland, where we're all expected to reduce our water use by 20% and employ worm composting systems for the greater sustainability good. Some midnight census rambler went home with an Urth Caffe coffee voucher; someone went home with worm doo.

Our team included Justin, a UCLA senior majoring in biology, Shari, a city resident scarily well-informed about All Things Civic (the status of the auditorium, the instability of the California Incline, the construction timetable for the Expo line...) and Matt, a recent graduate now studying for his architecture board exams who knows stuff like the construction cost of an underground parking spot (twice the cost of the car). He won our team's Above and Beyond Award -- he lives in Santa Barbara, and not only returned there after we finished at 2 a.m., but planned to be at work on time today.

Our mini-tract, east of Ocean, north of Wilshire, was a mix of commercial and residential buildings. As foot soldiers, we wanted action, we wanted our tally sheets filled with hash marks -- otherwise, we were just taking a walk in the dark burdened by a clipboard. But as human beings, we wanted people to sleep sheltered in a safe place they call home. Less is more, but we were greedy.

In 2013, the Santa Monica homeless census enumerated 780 individuals, of whom 380 were on the street and 400 in shelters, hospitals, jails or other facilities; in 2014, the number was 742 -- 346 on the street and 396 sheltered. The figures from last night won't be available until late next month.

A security guard smoking a cigarette in front of an apartment building on California Street eyed us, probably wondering what the hell four people who look like the church supper committee were doing up way past their bedtime.

We explained our mission, and off he went: "Things have gotten bad for our people," he said, to the best of my memory (difficult to hold a clipboard, a flashlight and a reporter's notebook). "We're getting a lot of homeless thugs riding the bus from downtown and beating up the locals."

He said some of regulars, whom he clearly acknowledged as neighbors, had abandoned their usual sleeping spots out of fear of the intruders; some of the more resourceful locals had found access to roofs, and were spending the night up and away from trouble.

Good for them, bad for us -- enumerators can count only what we can see from public property.

Last night, we saw 11 people and one very protective dog. Most were bedded down in doorways and parking lots. Most were men, including one guy of indeterminate age with straggly hair, crouched against a concrete wall, madly texting on his smartphone.

I hope somebody responded. Maybe with an offer of a warm bed.


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