July 18, 2019

Seeing Our Homeless Neighbors

Photo by David McNew/Reuters

Every year in January, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) conducts a census of L.A.’s homeless population. The results of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count allow the joint city and county authority to allocate funding where the need is highest. The process of counting approximately 52,000 individuals requires a massive, coordinated volunteer force spread out over three nights. 

I chose to volunteer in the 2019 homeless count for several reasons. I regretted not doing it last year, when I first learned about it. I understand the impact hard data has on resource distribution, and much of my work with TRIBE (a group for people in their 20s and 30s) at IKAR has centered around housing and homelessness. 

I’m co-captain of the TRIBE Justice team, a working group that offers educational and direct service opportunities to our young adult community, and I’m also a member of IKAR’s Homeless Initiative. As a lay leader in a faith community that is driven by social justice, I wanted to play my part in this year’s collective action and encourage my peers to do the same. 

Along with my TRIBE Justice co-captain, 60 volunteers showed up to the Kaiser hospital in Mid-City on Jan. 24 to volunteer for the count. A LAHSA graduate-student intern greeted us with snacks, waivers and a paper quiz, to be used later for our count training. The room was a diverse crowd: immigrants, mental health workers, Kaiser employees and everyday citizens who wanted to help. Angelenos of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds were represented, which felt like a testament to how vast and pressing the homelessness crisis is in our city. 

“The homeless count, much like our religion, reiterates just how important it is for our unhoused neighbors to be cared for by those of us who are fortunate to be housed.”

TRIBE members joined forces with NuRoots, a young adult initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. We received discussion materials that drew a connection between Jewish scripture and taking action on homelessness. The reading selections provided a religious framework for the night, which complemented the context the Justice team’s work is rooted in — mainly that trying to repair the world, together with community, is an entryway into synagogue life for Jews who may be otherwise unaffiliated. 

The training taught the group how to identify homeless dwellings and individuals based on appearance. The key phrase emphasized was that the L.A. homeless count is a visual one. During the count, volunteers walk or drive through the streets, marking down only what is visible. We do not invade anyone’s privacy. 

Our car (which included a woman we met that night who was raised in South L.A., plus two TRIBE volunteers) drove through a sliver of Mid-City less than a mile from my apartment. We tallied more campers than anything else, and I was naively taken aback by how easily these structures can be identified as homeless dwellings once you know what to look for. 

The idea of this count being a visual exercise reminded me of Rabbi Sharon Brous’ sermon “I Want to See You. And I Want You to See Me.” While that sermon was more about anti-Semitism in American leftist movements, the importance of feeling seen when underrepresented or under attack felt too similar to ignore. 

With homelessness as ever-present as it is here, it’s all too easy for our homeless neighbors and their shelters to fade into the background of day-to-day life. The visibility of our homeless community is so pervasive that it can disappear from our consciousness entirely, threatening to allow an extreme issue to become an outright disaster. 

The homeless count, much like our religion, reiterates just how important it is for our unhoused neighbors to be cared for by those of us who are fortunate to be housed. For a few hours on a single night, I was part of a diverse coalition that came together to see our homeless neighbors and to count them as members of a community that lifts those who need to be lifted and does not turn away from them. 

To be a modern Jew is to hold a lot of privilege, and the least we can do is wield that privilege to the advantage of others. The Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count offers a chance not only to carry out a mitzvah but to be part of solving our city’s most significant contemporary issue.

Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk is co-captain of the IKAR TRIBE Justice team and works as a museum curator and educator.