LOS ANGELES (AFP) -Notebook in hand, Ana Alvarez walked along the streets of Skid Row, the downtown Los Angeles district that’s sometimes called the homeless capital of America.
Scores of tents and makeshift shelters had been erected for the night, all along the sidewalks.
“We don’t get close to them. We try not to disturb them, because a lot of them are already asleep,” Alvarez said.
She was helping with the homeless count that takes place every two years across the entire county.
After dark, volunteers like her scour the vast region and tally up the number of people sleeping rough.
“It’s important to know how many people live here, to assess the resources we need,” said Latoya Hawthorne, a census participant who works in a homeless women’s refuge.
At the last count in 2013, Los Angeles had some 39,500 homeless people. If you include those camping or staying with someone, the figure jumps to 60,000.
According to current estimates, some 3,000 people sleep on Skid Row’s urine- and garbage-strewn streets, their shelters made of cardboard, fabric or plastic and squeezed right next to each other.
“We counted 24 homeless individuals; we luckily didn’t see any children or people under 18,” said Harry Batt, one of thousands of volunteers helping with the count.
“It is very depressing,” he added, noting that a lot of the homeless are mentally ill.
A few blocks away, US Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald walked briskly, adding a mark on his notebook every time he sees a homeless person or a tent.
His presence was a demonstration of the Obama administration’s desire to tackle the problem of military vets who have fallen into extreme poverty.
Of some 630,000 homeless people in the United States, nearly 50,000 are former military personnel, according to official figures.
Doran Mateik, a nurse who works regularly on Skid Row, led McDonald and his team, a map in hand.
“I’ve been coming here for seven years, I try to get to know them, to see how I can help them. Some of them have become my friends,” she said.
“I give them my address so they can receive some mail, or I try to assist them with the red tape.”
At the end of road, McDonald stopped before a tall, thin black man with glasses who stood next to a shopping cart filled with possessions.
“You’re a vet? So am I! How old are you? Sixty-three? I’m 61! Do you get the help you need?” the politician asked, as cameras rolled and journalists watched.
The man refused to give his name, but said he was in good health. A woman from McDonald’s entourage handed him a business card detailing psychological services for former soldiers.
“I’m not a suicide risk,” he said, politely. The woman invited him to see her at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
“We want to help,” she said.
The government says that since 2010 the number of homeless vets has fallen by 33 per cent. Most are 50 years or older and served in Vietnam or the first Gulf War, but not in the post-September 11, 2001 campaigns.
While McDonald finished up in the section they were allocated, a homeless man seated on the ground in front of his tent asked: “Why do they come at night? Why don’t they come during the day? They scare me.”
Alvarez explained that the census, the results of which will be published in April, takes place at night because during the day people move about a lot, partly because they are not allowed to linger in one place.
“It’s a good thing they are counting them. The problem is that they get this info and do (nothing) about it,” said a former homeless man who goes by the name “General Dogon” and has become a campaigner.
“I don’t see people getting off the street… all I see is more police.”