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Around the Foothills

It was those who live in the undergrowth who would seem to present a problem.

March 22, 1990|DOUG SMITH

In case the Census Bureau missed him Wednesday morning--and it appears certain it did--we counted the man in the pup tent near the interchange of the Glendale Freeway and Fletcher Drive.

He was standing when we saw him, apparently staring off to nowhere.

The photographer with me, Ricardo DeAratanha, spotted him first as we drove by the spit of land between the freeway on-ramp and off-ramp. Even though I was looking right there, I didn't pick him out of the trees until Ricardo pointed.

We parked and walked back. He must have heard us coming as we crunched over the soft mulch covering the earth. When we approached his position, he was gone. On close inspection, we detected a man-made canopy of leaves. There was no motion or sound behind this nearly perfectly camouflaged shelter.

We decided not to intrude at the moment, but instead to continue our exploration.

Our purpose was reconnaissance. The next day, enumerators from the U.S. Census Bureau were to fan out into the streets from 2 to 4 a.m. to conduct the first formal count of America's homeless. The idea was to catch the homeless after they were settled down for the night.

In the weeks before the count, advocates for the homeless criticized that method, predicting it would leave many uncounted. The Census Bureau, knowing that the news media would be out watching, took an evasive posture. Officials declined to give any information on the itineraries of the enumerators who would be searching for street people.

The only option was to find the homeless ourselves, then wait for the census enumerators to come along.

The search began along the Los Angeles River in the area of Los Feliz Boulevard. Dozens of people live there in cars and campers along Riverside Drive. They would be easy enough to count by anyone with a little moxie.

It was those who live in the undergrowth who would seem to present a problem. Their presence is generally known only by glimpse and rumor.

Social service workers talk of homeless people living in hidden encampments in Griffith Park, for example. But, the truth is, there are plenty less remote than that.

On another stop on our dry run, we met two men sitting on chairs and barbecuing one hamburger and two potatoes over a hibachi in a small triangle of a park on Los Feliz Boulevard. They talked freely about the outdoor life.

"People will give you money," one said. "You can get food. It's that roof over your head. . . When it rains, we're in trouble."

They said they wouldn't mind at all being counted. But they weren't going out of their way to be available. At night, they said, they move back several hundred feet, through a hole in a fence, to the darkness on the bank of the river.

"This is a good spot here," one said. "But there are a lot of good spots around here."

For seclusion, the spot on Fletcher was the best.

With cars whizzing by on both sides, we continued our exploration up the sloping spit of land. Caltrans had recently cut back the growth, leaving large open spaces between the trees. But at the summit, there was a clot of underbrush.

Trails seemed to lead into it. We stopped at the edge.

"Hello," the photographer said. There was no response.

We poked ahead timidly. There was no litter on the ground to suggest habitation. For a moment, we had the silly feeling we were stomping into the undergrowth for nothing.

We edged up into the branches. Then we saw a piece of plastic, suspended in some way from branches hanging no more than 3 feet from the ground. We went farther and saw a second shelter.

There was no sound or movement. We sensed that electricity given off by a wild animal that has been exposed. We would have had to crawl on our hands and knees to inspect further. We decided to retire. Whoever may have been there was not counted by us.

Back down the hill, we decided to call on the man we knew we had seen.

We approached the front of his shelter. The branches, it turned out, were only camouflage. Under them was an alpine-style, two-tone green pup tent. He was lying on top of a sleeping bag, propped up on an elbow, eating a can of pork and beans. He was clean and not poorly dressed.

"How you doin'?" he said politely, almost cheerfully. He turned off a portable TV at his side.

I asked if he had heard that the U.S. Census Bureau was coming to count him. He hadn't.

I said we were from The Times, and we were coming to see whether they found him or not.

"OK," he said.

I asked if there were others living up the hill.

"There used to be, but they moved on," he said.

Like an animal playing possum, he was perfectly still. He smiled and volunteered nothing.

I asked if we could drop in on him again.

"Sure," he said, still smiling.

We walked away. In three or four steps we could no longer see his home.

I returned on census night. The spit of land was forbiddingly dark and still.

He didn't make the census. But at least someone counted him.

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