Tamra Foggy, 32, tries to stay warm on the Third Street Promenade in downtown… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
The glow of ice-colored lights wrapped tightly around the tree branches threw an unwelcome spotlight on the people trying to sleep. It was past midnight and many of those sitting on the Third Street Promenade's benches buried their heads in their arms.
In her pink beanie, Mackenzie Carter and her team of counters strolled by. As she walked, Carter made a single tally mark for each person deemed homeless, then tucked her clipboard away, shielding it from sight.
Debbie Lee, Carter's "team captain," followed a few paces behind. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a person curled up in a doorway. The person, asleep under a thin white plastic trash bag, was off the main walkway and easy to miss.
"Did you get him?" Lee whispered to her team.
In recent days, thousands of volunteers like Carter and Lee fanned out across 4,000 square miles and pounded pavement in the dark of night, bundled in jackets and armed with maps. Their task was ambitious: Count Los Angeles County's homeless population one person, one street at a time.
The massive endeavor is the "largest count of homeless individuals and families" in the country, officials said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates that jurisdictions perform a homeless count every two years.
In a county so geographically large, officials with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said they use a combination of street counts by volunteers, data reports by shelters and statistical extrapolation to get their final total.
In 2013, the agency said it is relying on help from about 100 cities and neighborhoods such as Santa Monica that perform their own street counts and then feed their data to the county.
"If you don't know the size of the problem, it's very difficult to solve it," the agency's Executive Director Michael Arnold said. "For many years, communities received homeless dollars without any assessment on how many people were on the street."
Starting in 2009, HUD allowed cities to perform their own counts. Between 2009 and 2011, tallies showed that the number of homeless had decreased 3% countywide to about 51,000.
The results of the latest count won't be available until summer. And although Arnold said he's hoping for another decline, he said the struggling economy may counter recent efforts to stem the problem.
In the last five years, Arnold said, his agency has done a better job of identifying gaps in the way it helps people find and maintain housing. Homeless prevention in the county was bolstered by $80 million from an Obama administration stimulus package, he added.
Service providers have focused on getting chronically homeless people into stable housing, he said. They have taken their services to the streets rather than requiring people to come to them. They try first to get a roof over someone's head before attempting to solve the problems that led them to become homeless.
"How hard is it to sober up living on the streets?" Arnold asked.
Some communities, such as Santa Monica, also allocate money toward support programs from its own general fund. City staff member Natasha Guest said Santa Monica spends about $2.6 million annually toward that effort.
By about 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning, Lee and her team — all employees of Downtown Santa Monica — counted 14 homeless people on the Third Street Promenade and Santa Monica Pier.
One of those counted was Diane Muldonado, 58, who was pushing herself backward in her wheelchair down the Promenade toward Arizona Avenue. She's said she's been homeless in the city for 16 years.
"It's cold tonight," she said from under a blanket someone had given her.
Her goal was to get to the bus stop on Arizona. She said she rides the Metro bus at night to stay warm.
"We're doing this because our city's mission is to end homelessness," Lee said. "But when you strip that part away and just look at it from human to human, it's hard. Every time you see someone, you have to write it down, and your heart sinks a little bit."
Times staff photographer Genaro Molina contributed to this report.