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Census Doesn't Count On No-Shows : Homeless: Workers set out to collect information about the number of homeless on the Westside. But the counters found far fewer people than they expected.

March 22, 1990|Patricia Ward Biederman | This story was written by Times staff writer Patricia Ward Biederman and is based on reporting by staff writers Rose Ana Berbeo, Mathis Chazanov, Nancy Hill-Holtzman, Barbara Koh, Josh Meyer, John L. Mitchell and Julio Moran

Where did they go?

Even in communities like Venice and Santa Monica, where the homeless are normally so visible, the counters often outnumbered the counted Tuesday night during the nation's first official census of homeless Americans.

There were 13 homeless people at the National Guard Armory in West Los Angeles when 16 census workers, wearing white paper vests and carrying red, white and blue plastic briefcases, showed up to count them.

"Sunday night we had a hundred people," said National Guard Major Jeff Kramer, who administers the armory. "Yesterday we had 58. Today we have 13."

Kramer speculated that the poor turnout at the armory, which is normally opened to the homeless only when temperatures dip, was the result of Tuesday's mild weather and the fact that agenda of the homeless may be different from the government's.

"Homeless people have their own program, which may or may not agree with the desires and needs of the Establishment," Kramer said. "It's nice out there tonight. Would you rather sleep outside, when it's warm with a nice breeze, or in a stuffy room on a cot and being told what time the lights go out?"

For whatever reasons, "enumerators," as the counters were officially called, often found fewer homeless than anticipated on the streets and at Westside locations pre-selected for the count.

Working under a crescent moon, three enumerators in Venice shined their flashlights behind dumpsters, under cars and behind bushes as they worked near the upscale Main Street shopping district. One of the 13 people they encountered was a 40-year-old woman with a pole slung over her shoulder, who dragged a shopping cart through an alley. The woman, however, said she was not homeless. Interviewed in Spanish, she said she rummages through dumpsters at night to find cans and bottles to recycle to help feed her six children.

Ten years ago, when the last United States census was conducted, the homeless were not sufficiently numerous to warrant a separate count. This first official survey of Americans who live in shelters, in cars and on the streets and beaches was a long night characterized by small numbers of homeless, bureaucratic snafus and varying degrees of cooperation on the part of those who were being counted.

A 30-year-old veteran, who asked not to be identified, was one of the first to show up at the West Los Angeles armory. Neatly dressed in jeans and a Members Only jacket, he said he had been promoting participation in the census to other homeless people at feeding programs and in Santa Monica's Palisades Park, where he and his wife usually pitch their tent.

"They need to know how many there are of us so those of us who want to get off the streets can get the help we need," he said.

The man, who came to Los Angeles from Florida in October, said he had worked for an agency that provided relief for the homeless until it lost its funding and was disbanded.

He predicted that the census would fail to produce an accurate count. Many of the homeless distrust the government, he said, and, despite official assurances that all information collected would be confidential, some would rather go into hiding than participate.

"They think it's going to be turned over to the police," he said of census data. "A lot of them are scared."

Some of the homeless and their advocates were not so much scared as angry about the count. Randy Kling, 35, who said he had recently got a job as a house painter and was trying to bootstrap himself out of homelessness, surveyed the unusually small crowd at the Culver City armory, where 15 counters arrived to find only 10 homeless. "From what I see here, it's fixed," Kling said.

Others were distressed that federal funds were available for an official count but not to help the homeless. At the West Los Angeles armory, John Suggs, executive director of the countywide Coalition for the Homeless, pointed out that local shelters are normally closed, but "when the government needs them open to count the homeless, then they open."

A homeless man in Santa Monica's Memorial Park, who declined to give his name, described the process as "a game." "What's in it for me?" he asked. "The government ain't gonna do nothing for us anyway."

More than 380 enumerators, including an estimated 50 homeless, canvassed the Westside through the night, working in groups of three to five. All did not go smoothly. Four enumerators showed up in Memorial Park to count the 130 people who gathered there for a hot meal and a cot for the night, but they forgot to bring pencils.

Sometimes the enumerators simply didn't go to the places where the homeless were. No counters were present when the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition distributed soup and sandwiches to some 150 homeless men, women and children at the coalition's temporary feeding site on the corner of Sycamore Avenue and Romaine Street.

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