The campaign to reach out to people hidden in the cracks of our society, sleeping in decrepit outdoor living situations not fit for our own pets, continues to expand in communities throughout America. The 100,000 Homes campaign is now in over one-hundred cities.
This past weekend, another community canvassed their neighborhood in search of people living outdoors. Three mornings in a row, just before dawn, one-hundred local volunteers interviewed their homeless neighbors in preparation to house them.
This time, it was in Silver Lake, an eclectic and gentrified neighborhood just northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In the darkness of the early morning, team members sporting clipboards, flashlights and coffee thermoses initiated a survey that would literally save people’s lives. For the most vulnerable, there were thirty-five brand new apartments waiting for them to move in.
The search was like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” It is not easy to find a man living in the bushes of a hill, trying to conceal himself from the dangers of the streets. Or a woman wrapped up in a few layers of blankets nestled underneath a freeway bridge.
With life-saving resources available, you almost want to pierce the early morning silence with a desperate shout, “Where are you?” The landscape of trash dumpsters, unkempt bushes, and dark alleys camouflage hidden people as if they were sleeping in an urban warzone.
But the teams persevered in search of their Waldos who were homeless in the neighborhood. They found a father and son hidden underneath a bridge. Dad had lost a kidney and worked temporary manual labor jobs. His son was eighteen years old and was a student at the local community college. They could not afford an apartment.
They found a woman so desperate for medical care the team had to transport her to a hospital emergency room.
Within two tiny square miles, the survey team found two-hundred people who were homeless. That is a lot of homeless Waldos.
The agency that I lead has participated in seven of these homeless Vulnerability Index surveys in the past two years. On average, a couple of hundred homeless neighbors have been found hidden within a couple of square miles.
With more than 4,000 square miles in Los Angeles County, two square miles filled with people struggling with homelessness on the streets is significant. If the rate of two-hundred people per two square miles were true for the whole County, we would have hundreds of thousands of homeless neighbors.
Of course, the official homeless count in Los Angeles County is just over 50,000 people. I just wonder if there are more hidden homeless Waldos than we are able to find in the urban chaos of our society.
It appears that every small neighborhood that we survey seems to have way more people hidden on the streets than we imagined. Two young teenagers were found sleeping in a trash bin in Long Beach. A few people who were homeless were sleeping on a rooftop in Hollywood. A whole encampment of veterans set up a homeless refuge along the Los Angeles River. No one would have noticed them except for those who spent three days surveying.
Has our country created a permanent under-class of people barely surviving on our streets? It sometimes feels like it.
The most effective solution to this social scourge we call homelessness is to perform intensive homeless surveys, and then connect the most vulnerable people into permanent supportive housing.
In lay terms… we just need to find Waldo, and house him.
Photo credit: Ankur Shah