By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor
Capt. Gerald Woodyard, formerly of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division, says, “Being homeless is not a crime.” But, many people in the San Pedro community look at homelessness as a problem to be dealt with.
I was reminded of this as I observed the Facebook postings on some of the San Pedro neighborhood council pages following the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. Some blamed the local recovery homes for the homeless presence, while others suggested using the homeless count as an excuse to run background checks and jail the homeless to ameliorate the problem.
It’s a common conclusion that people living another day in San Pedro’s Eden make when they encounter someone who is hungrier, lonelier, colder and on the streets.
On Jan. 28, I had the opportunity to walk through the streets of San Pedro and participate in the count. The homeless count is a snapshot of the number of homeless people on a single night out of the year. About 50 volunteers took on 17 Census tracts of the San Pedro community, trying to account for the number of men, women and children who inhabit its streets.
The homeless count is intended to help communities secure funding for transitional and permanent housing programs to help homeless people get back on their feet.
By the end of this excursion there were 103 individuals, including six youths, and 106 vehicles. But the news was that the actual number of homeless people counted in San Pedro didn’t match the public perception.
Walking Off Eden
I arrived at the LAPD’s Harbor Division Community Room at about 7:45 p.m. The arriving volunteers were asked to sign in before entering and partaking in the snacks and coffee. On each seat, facing the front of the room with a dry-erase board, there was a printed PowerPoint presentation and waiver for volunteers to sign. The waiver outlined responsibilities and assumptions of risks. Once completed, each volunteer was gifted a T-shirt. On the board there were several numbers of the volunteer coordinators and police department contacts. Most of the volunteers were participating for the first time.
Once inside, I met 29-year-old volunteer, Melissa Lujan, an experienced volunteer who worked as a homeless advocate in Washington D.C. before moving to Long Beach a few years ago. This year was her second homeless count in San Pedro.
“It was a good experience,” she said of her 2013 participation. “I was paired up with one gentleman and we drove up and down the neighborhoods. He’d done it for years, so it was real good to do it with somebody who was experienced and did it for a while.”
This year, she believed, was well organized, but there was less training.
I asked her about why it was important for her to participate in the count.
“You mean big picture-wise?” Lujan asked, rhetorically. “Just to make sure that the community has the funding that they need, less awareness and more funding on policies.”
Central Neighborhood Council Homeless Committee member Alexander Hall, a volunteer coordinator, advised the crowd to plan on participating until about 12 a.m. Volunteers could either walk or drive during the counting. The coordinators also said they would prefer for those who were to be driving to drive slowly on some routes, and to also walk in groups.
Volunteers were advised that they did not need to engage the homeless. Instead, volunteers were just asked to mark down on their clipboards if they saw people who looked homeless or vehicles that looked inhabited.
For the safety portion of the informational, Officer Jacqueline Lopez explained to the volunteers that the LAPD was available to support them. Officer Lopez referred the audience to the phone numbers on the board, one of which included her cell phone number, the Harbor Division’s front desk and 9-1-1 for emergencies.
“What would be considered a non-emergency?” I asked Officer Lopez.
Lopez cited witnessing a crime as an example. I wasn’t quite satisfied with the answer, but I left it alone.
At about 8:45 p.m., people were asked to form their own groups and send one person to pick up the clipboard.
Jordan Wanner and Laura Vander Neut, a married couple, asked me to join their group. I asked if my photographer Betty Guevara could join us on the ride and they agreed.
The couple lives in downtown San Pedro and first learned about the homeless count in 2013.
“We’re out and about quite a bit and you just see a lot of people, and you kind of wonder, ‘What can you do?’” Vander Neut, 29, said.
So this year they decided to go for it and try to help out the community.
“It ensures that we get adequate funding for our areas,” said Wanner, a Christian professional. “It’s one step … Pedro seems to have a lot of homeless [people].”
“And, even if it’s just locally, so we can get our fair share or resources,” his wife continued.
Wanner works as an engineer in the South Bay and Vander Neut works for the City of Lomita as a management analyst. The couple met in college, in a private university in Michigan. Work brought them to California. He is from Michigan and she is originally from Colorado. They originally moved to Manhattan Beach but later decided to set roots in San Pedro, a community they’ve grown to love.
“I guess, lower prices but still the convenience to where we work,” said Vander Neut about the reasons they moved to San Pedro. “We just really like San Pedro. We like being in a place where you can walk to everything you need.”
“It kind of reminded me of where I grew up, which was more blue-collared versus Manhattan Beach, which is just crazy,” Wanner concluded.
Our group was assigned Census Tract 15, bounded by 16th Street to the North, Pacific Avenue to the east, Hamilton Avenue to the south and Walker to the west. Before we proceeded to our assigned designation, We looked at the printed slideshow we were provided with, which set criteria on how to identify the homeless. Criteria such as: People wearing multiple layers of clothing and blankets, folks with poor hygiene or otherwise poor physical condition, or people who seemed to be carrying all of their possessions on their person or in shopping cart.
There was even criteria for vehicles in which homeless may use to sleep, such as: vehicles with blankets on the windows, or vehicles with foggy windows. Other criteria include vehicles that are tightly packed with belongings, and campers or recreational vehicles in disrepair that are parked with many similar vehicles.
Armed with this set of rules, we arrived at the Seven-Eleven on 19th Street and Pacific Avenue a few minutes before 9 p.m.
There, we found a fairly well-kempt woman asked us for change.
We counted her as homeless because I recognized her, she asks for change at the donut shop near our office almost daily.
Further south on Pacific, we were approached by two homeless men who asked us for money.
Following these encounters, we walked along Hamilton to Grand Avenue and
and then back up to 17th Street and Pacific Avenue. We walked through some
alleys. Though we saw some trash and bulky items as big as a person, we did not see any homeless people.
Wanner and Vander Neut worked like experienced canvassers driving through each and every alley and street with the aid of their smart phone.
Guevara was the first to observe how, the farther west, toward Rancho Palos Verdes, we went, the more houses we saw that there were outfitted with flood lights.
We surmised that it made it less likely for people to find shelter in those areas because of the increased visibility.
By the end of the night, our group counted a total of three individuals, all of whom we found on Pacific Avenue, and four vehicles that seemed to be used as shelter.
“We can go show you where some homeless people live; we already know. [They] just aren’t in our section,” Wanner said.