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Last week I experienced something that, based on my eight years of living in Los Angeles, is really quite extraordinary: Try as I might, I couldn’t spot a single homeless individual within 6 square miles.
Every year, Los Angeles County conducts a homeless count in all the neighborhoods within its purview. LA has to do this count if it wants to get federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and though the methodology is flawed (it leaves out a huge population of invisible homeless who live in motels or crash on friends’ couches), the count still plays an important role in helping policymakers register the magnitude of the homelessness situation. Last year’s count revealed a 23 percent spike in LA County’s homeless population, to nearly 58,000, a number LA officials called “staggering” and “scary.”
This year, about 8,000 volunteers roamed the streets on foot or cars with their flashlights and tally sheets to count the homeless for three nights, and I was one of them. I sat in the back seat of a Chevrolet Volt with a clipboard, peering out the open window for any potential evidence of homelessness—whether individuals with obviously bad hygiene and weathered skin, couples in tents, families in vehicles with parking tickets and lights on, or makeshift shelters of tarps and carts. I was in a team with two other volunteers. One, an official with the LA Housing & Community Investment Department, manned the wheel. The other, a digital advertiser, navigated. I was the designated counter, which meant I marked lines on my tally sheet whenever I saw a homeless person.
Each team was assigned a census tract, and my team had to cover most of Bel Air, a hillside residential neighborhood with some of the wealthiest residents in the country. For more than two hours, we drove around the borders of our census tract, weaving through narrow, steep streets that abruptly halted in front of bolted gates and private driveways and, in one case, a humongous white bull statue. We meandered so many of these hidden alleyways that I could feel the half-digested cookies in my stomach sliding up my throat, but I forced my eyes open to look for any individuals who looked like they didn’t belong. We saw Tolkienesque castles with majestic front gates that seemed like they belonged behind a moat. We saw grand, swooping villas, glimmering cars, and swanky, futuristic structures with transparent glass walls and infinity pools. What we did not see was a single sign of homelessness.
None of us was surprised. When you’re living in a home worth $6 million to $250 million in an enclosed, highly guarded area, you’re probably also resourceful enough to make your neighborhood very unfriendly to the homeless. Here, hired security guards chase out strangers, while gated communities ward off trespassers. The closest service provider or public restroom is miles away, and the roads have no sidewalks for the homeless to set up camp. Meanwhile, statistics show that the homeless population is growing, while the amount of affordable housing is shrinking—so we knew that the lack of homelessness we saw in Bel Air was not indicative of the real situation in Los Angeles.
“This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
Although we didn’t see any homeless people, we knew they were around: December’s Skirball fire, which destroyed six homes and damaged 12 more in Bel Air, was apparently ignited by an illegal cooking fire at a homeless encampment in a nearby ravine. Those campers are now gone: The only things officials found at the abandoned homeless site were a scorched portable stove, a pot, a cheese grater, several fuel canisters, a ruined boombox, and burned pages from a children’s encyclopedia. The incident sparked debate within the Bel Air community. Some residents said they sympathized with the homeless, but others said they fear another fire outbreak and want the authorities to crack down on encampments.
By the time we returned to our deployment site at Bel Air Church, it was almost 11 p.m. Some of the youngest volunteers greeted us by the door with hopeful smiles. “Any luck?” a dark-haired boy asked.
I shrugged. “Zero,” I said, returning a tally sheet with no lines, just ovals.
“Oh, really? Zero?” said the boy, looking a little crestfallen. He and his young buddies packed us bundles of leftover cake and brownies in case we got hungry on our drive back home. They also handed out little cloth knapsacks stuffed with hygiene products in case we ran into any homeless persons on our way.
As my teammates and I left the church, we wondered, “This is a good thing, isn’t it? Should we be disappointed that we didn’t see a single homeless person tonight?”
I thought about the New York Times journalist I met that night during the homeless count orientation and guessed that if anyone was most disappointed, it would have been him. He had shown up with a reporter’s notebook and a photographer, hoping to string together some narrative for a future story on LA. He said he had chosen the Bel Air site because he had read about the Skirball fire and had hoped to catch a visible juxtaposition between the rich and the poor. I doubt the photographer got much out of his trip except for some pretty snaps of pretty homes with pretty views.
By the time I reached home, it was almost midnight. My low-income neighborhood is so dense that it’s usually impossible to find parking that late at night, so as usual, I parked at an illegal spot with the plan to move it early in the morning before the parking enforcement officer zipped in. The moment I stepped out of the car, I spotted a homeless man snoring on top of some cardboard on the sidewalk next to a city-run nursing home. As I walked to my apartment, I passed another homeless man who has been living in my neighborhood for as long as I have. He was curled up next to a dollar store with a plastic bundle for a pillow. Nope, it’s not hard to spot homelessness in my neck of the woods.
That New York Times reporter wanted a dramatic scene of the stinking rich and the stinking poor living side-by-side to highlight inequality and injustice in the city. But here in LA, people divide themselves physically by class and, to some degree, by race—and maybe that’s the problem. If you have to rummage through bushes and climb down ravines to find a homeless person, then it’s too easy to forget they even exist.