First published in the Feb. 26, 2022, print issue of the Burbank Leader.
They found him lying down in an elevator.
The downtown Burbank public parking garage was silent for a brief moment as Samuel Merritt and Jeff Guzman stared at the man, who looked back at them from his spot on the elevator floor. He had wrapped himself in blankets, taking refuge from the cold night outside the elevator doors, the screen of the phone in his hands shining faintly.
The silent moment passed quickly. One of the two other men asked if they could take the lift up to the top floor. Yes, the man in the elevator replied.
Come on in.
He was the first of a handful of people experiencing homelessness Merritt and Guzman observed for Tuesday’s countywide tally. The two workers from Streetplus — a company the city of Burbank employs to help provide homeless outreach and hospitality services — were among the thousands of community members participating this week in the Los Angeles County count, the largest of its kind in the United States.
The annual count returned this year after being on hiatus in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides data to advocates and policymakers regarding what surveys indicate remains, for many, L.A. County’s biggest problem. It will also influence officials’ decisions regarding where and how to distribute funding to address the issue.
Volunteers deployed throughout the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday for the “point-in-time” count, which included estimates of vehicles and tents surveyors believe a person is living in. USC workers partnering with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority also conducted demographic interviews with homeless people this week, a process that will continue into next week, LAHSA Executive Director Heidi Marston said at a virtual press conference. Data from the count will be available in June or sometime in the summer, she added.
OFFICIALS JOIN ANNUAL COUNT
The 2020 count, which was taken prior to the pandemic, indicated that 291 homeless people were in Burbank, with more than 66,000 across L.A. County. The city’s figure was an increase of just nine people from 2019. But advocates and officials nationwide have argued that the pandemic’s economic effects likely increased the number of people experiencing homelessness.
Some homeless people in Burbank have been in the city for some time, Guzman and Merritt said, while others just pass through. They’ve built relationships with many of the former, even calling one man by name as they walked their route on Tuesday.
“Some people … don’t want to walk out their house and see an encampment or walk out their house and see an RV,” said Merritt, the Streetplus worker, noting that he was once homeless himself. “If they did interact with that person, they would understand it more. Because any one of us, we could wake up tomorrow and be homeless.”
The Burbank City Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss a five-year plan to address homelessness on March 15. One aspect of that plan will be to reduce the number of people without shelter in Burbank by at least 50%.
Councilman Nick Schultz, who joined Vice Mayor Konstantine Anthony in one of 22 Burbank volunteer teams dispatched on Tuesday, said this week’s count was an opportunity to raise awareness about how community members can be involved in addressing the issue of homelessness.
“We as a council hear everyone loud and clear — people are sick and tired of inaction,” Schultz. “There’s going to be no quick, overnight answers, but I guarantee that by the end of this five-year period, we’re going to make a dent in the issue, and we’re going to do it compassionately.”
COMMUNITY MEMBERS VOLUNTEER
About 40 teams of two or more people signed up for the count in Burbank, according to city spokeswoman Simone McFarland, with about 60 volunteers — not including police and Streetplus workers — actually participating. Though some teams were delayed from deploying due to technical issues with the mobile app used to conduct the count — a new component implemented to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 — volunteers gathered in the frigid night air to don reflective vests and collect maps before driving to their assigned areas.
LAHSA officials made a number of other changes to this year’s count, which was delayed by about a month due to the recent coronavirus surge, because of the pandemic. Volunteers were encouraged to drive their routes where they could, and while they had the option in previous counts to form teams, it was a requirement this year to keep people of the same households together.
“I think we both felt there was a chance to contribute to the town in some way and help out Burbank and the public works that they all do,” said resident Adam Goldman, who volunteered with his wife. “This seemed like a … quick, simple way to give, to give back.”
The Streetplus teams were among the last of Burbank’s to go out Tuesday night, taking the areas where canvassing via vehicle would be difficult or impossible — like an elevator.
As Guzman and Merritt waited for the cramped lift to reach the top floor of the parking structure, Guzman struck up a conversation with the man.
“You ever think about getting housing?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the man replied, still on the floor. “Working on it. Kind of expensive.”
“It is,” Guzman agreed. “Let us know when you’re ready. We don’t got the mansions, but hey, we can get you some housing.”
The group reached its destination before Guzman finished speaking. As he and Merritt stepped out of the elevator, the man called out to them.
He asked them to send the elevator back to the bottom floor. They did so, then took out their phones and marked their first observation.