It was a cold and rainy January night, but Margarita Hernández had a reason to be out on the streets.
“It must be so sad to have to live on the streets, so sad to feel alone, so sad to have to spend the nights in the cold or the rain,” said Hernández, a former Boyle Heights resident and lifelong member of Dolores Mission Church.
A board member of her church’s Proyecto Pastoral, which runs shelters for adult men and women, Hernández was one of some 40 volunteers who participated in this year’s Homeless Count in Boyle Heights.
“For me it’s very important to know how many people are still on the streets, so that we can try to solve this problem,” she said.
Boyle Heights was one of the communities that opted to participate in the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, part of a biannual national count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Locally the count is organized by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the city-county agency that oversees and coordinates federal funding for homeless housing and other services provided throughout the region. Data from the biannual count is used to determine how federal and county funds are allocated.
On the evening of Jan. 29, volunteers met at the Chicano Resources Center on 1st Street, where they received training on how to properly identify and count homeless individuals and groups. They were then sent out in teams of two to four people, to cover some 22 Census tracts in Boyle Heights.
Many of the volunteers were recruited by Proyecto Pastoral and Jóvenes Inc, two local organizations that provide services to the local homeless community. Both organizations have “opted in” since the 2011 count ”“choosing to participate actively in order to receive specific demographics for the community.
“We opt in because it’s really important for Boyle Heights to have a complete count, to see how many homeless individuals are in our area,” said Eric Hubbard, development director at Jóvenes Inc. “We know there are a lot of passionate people here that are willing to volunteer.”
The count is intended to provide a number of homeless people out on the streets on a given night. Volunteers count individuals and family groups on the streets or on makeshift campgrounds, as well as vehicles that appear to be occupied. A separate count is also taken at local shelters.
Following the count, LAHSA conducts a demographic survey of some 4,000 homeless people that looks at the reasons for homelessness as well as whether any individuals have been denied services. Preliminary results from the Los Angeles count are expected at the end of April.
The Boyle Heights count was held on the same night as the much larger one in the Skid Row area downtown that generated much media attention. Advocates believe that a growth in Boyle Heights’ homeless population is partially due to the displacement of Skid Row’s population.
“Knowing that we are really close to downtown means that we might have more homeless than other areas of the city,” said Hubbard. “We feel it’s critically important for our community to have a great count and also understand what the depth of the need is, so that we can do more advocacy in our area.”
That is what led Carmen Godínez and Bijan Bahmani, a Boyle Heights couple, to volunteer for the count.
Bahmani, a social worker, said the homeless issue is “something dear to my heart. That’s why I want to see the area and what’s going on.”
“I just wanted to make sure what’s happening here is also counted and that whatever comes out of the count can be as helpful and representative as possible,” countered Godínez.
What was most surprising to Bahmani was the number of vehicles and makeshift shelters they found during their count. “I didn’t know there were so many people in vans and cars, I did not expect that,” he said.
Bahmani and Godínez, who covered a tract between First and Fourth streets from Alameda to State, said they are hoping to form an informal collective to help the local homeless population.
Hernández, the Dolores Mission volunteer, worked with three other women who specifically asked to survey the tract south of Fourth Street that includes Hollenbeck Park.
“We decided to go there because we know there are plenty of homeless men there,” said Hernández, who first heard about the count from her daughter, Sulma, a region coordinator for LAHSA.
The younger Hernández said they had been involved with issues of homelessness and family displacement since they were forced to move out of Aliso Village in the late ‘90s, to pave construction for the Pueblo del Sol Apartments. Though they moved to East Los Angeles, they still belong to Dolores Mission.
“I thought that participating would be a good idea,” said the elder Hernández. “I’ve always worked for the well-being of the community, to see a better life for our people.”