Thousands of people across Los Angeles County took to the streets this week, but it was not to march in support of a political cause.
Instead they were volunteering in the homeless count, a now annual reminder of a pressing problem in Los Angeles that has become difficult for many to ignore.
That inability to look the other way was what prompted eighth-grade math teacher Jose Fernandez to go straight from the LAUSD teacher strike that ended Tuesday to join the homeless count.
Homelessness has become more visible in recent years, even in Fernandez’s suburban neighborhood of Northridge.
“The only way you can ignore it, is if you choose to ignore it,” he said.
Fernandez, who brought along his 15-year-old son Jacob, said the count was important because “if we know where the homeless people are at, we can put the resources in the right places.”
Fernandez’s job is often a daily reminder of the scope of the problem, because some of his students are homeless. He said he was deeply affected by an incident that occurred at Vista Middle School in Panorama City, where he once taught.
A janitor had removed a bag of recyclables, which included cans and beer bottles, that was left on campus. It turned out the bag belonged to a mom who volunteered at the school. She became frantic when she could not find it, Fernandez said.
Teachers and staff soon learned why the mother was so distraught. She did not have a place to live and was collecting recyclables so her son could stay somewhere that night, Fernandez said.
“Every day she had to collect enough money so that her son could have a place to stay for the night,” he said. “The mom didn’t have a place, but at least she could put her son somewhere.”
“That kind of broke my heart,” he said.
The story was told to him by his wife, who teaches at Vista Middle School.
Fernandez now teaches closer to home at Nobel Middle School, where the rate of homelessness tends to be lower. But even in his own neighborhood there are tell-tale signs that the problem is never far away.
He was the designated driver Tuesday evening for his team, which was assigned to survey census tracts not far from his neighborhood, encompassing a large swath of shopping areas, including the Northridge Fashion Center, and some nearby residential streets.
As they crawled through the mostly empty parking lots of the shopping centers, under the glow of a La-Z-y Boy furniture store and the signs for many other stores, they tallied cars with shades pulled up over the windows, likely to provide privacy for inhabitants within. Along the perimeter of one shopping area, a laundry basket could be seen from the front passenger seat of a parked RV camper, and that vehicle was tallied as well.
Fernandez and his team usually made a bee-line to the dumpsters, with some getting out of the van to peer behind some of them. They checked along the train tracks and looked over chain-linked fences into the concrete Aliso Creek wash, where they could see tents set up under an overpass.
Some of the more hidden-away encampments may have gone unnoticed if not for Czarina Barrios, a housing navigator for LA Family Housing, which provides services to homeless individuals and families in the San Fernando Valley.
Barrios spotted the tip of a red tent peaking out of bushes behind a fence, and an encampment of two to three blue tents along the wash. She pointed to a man walking down the street carrying white plastic bags in each hand. She recognized him from her outreach work.
Barrios said she started off doing outreach for LA Family Housing, but was very interested in working on matching people with homes, which she said is a challenge in today’s economy.
“It’s hard for my friends and family to find housing, and they work full time,” she said.
The team also found signs of homelessness in unexpected places. Their final census tract also included a tranquil residential neighborhood with 1950s-era single-family homes, many of them two-stories.
Loraine Lundquist, a Northridge resident and a lecturer of physics, mathematics and sustainability at Cal State Northridge, held the clip board containing the sheet where the tally marks were to be recorded. She was the designated counter that night.
While driving through the neighborhood, Lundquist commented on how it is considered one of the safest places in the area. On one street, she spotted a van with the windows covered up, and jotted down one tally mark.
Lundquist said she was not surprised to see someone living out of their van in a neighborhood like this. It makes sense for someone to want to live somewhere as safe and peaceful as this street, she said.
“I live in a pretty — it’s not this nice — but it’s a pretty decent neighborhood in Northridge, and there’s a few RVs and vans there,” she said.
(Lundquist is a candidate in an upcoming election to fill a vacant City Council seat representing the 12th district, which includes Northridge and other surrounding neighborhoods.)
With more than 7,300 people volunteering over three evenings, there was a mix of reasons for why they stepped up, but often it was due to a personal encounter with homelessness. This year’s number of volunteers was up by at least 300 more people.
Earlier in the evening, about 30 or so volunteers turned up at the Northridge deployment site at Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints on Plummer Street. Many of them raised their hands when asked if this was their first time doing the count.
Among them was Ryan Roberts, who works as a handler at a nearby FedEx shipping warehouse (“We’re the real Santa Claus,” he joked to his teammates). Reynolds majored in religious studies at Cal State Northridge, and says that he feels that helping people experiencing homelessness was part of Christian teachings. It was out of this sense of duty that he helps with a shower program at a church in Chatsworth. The church also has drug and other addiction recovery programs, he said.
On the other end of the scale was Blanca Plascencia, who said she has volunteered the last five times the count was held.
Plascencia used to volunteer as a receptionist at a winter shelter in the Valley. Her “passion” for getting involved with tackling homeless grew out of personal experience as well.
“My sister is a veteran, and so you see a lot of homelessness in the veteran community,” she said.
While her sister was never homeless, she had worked for a bridge housing organization on the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles. Plascencia’s sister now works in the veterans services office at Cal State Northridge.
At the end of the night, the volunteers turned in their clipboards with their tallies, and were given a certificate thanking them. The results will not be released until late May, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which coordinates the count.
The results are often referenced when deciding policy and how money is used around homelessness in the county. LAHSA applies for federal dollars from the Housing and Urban Development department and distributes the funds to various service organizations and municipalities, including the city of Los Angeles, for programs that aid people who are experiencing homelessness.
Other than Fernandez and his son, none of the members in their team had met before that night, but he said his experiences have been positive the two years he has done the count.
While the annual event could be compared to other civic activities like jury duty or voting, this one was was different, Fernandez said.
“It really takes someone who really cares about the issue to come out,” he said.