Many Stories Heard During Homeless Count

Photo by Mary O’KEEFE
From left, Nancy Salem, James Colvin, Ivet Samvelyan, and Arthur Gazaryants.


Last week hundreds of volunteers drove, and walked, across Los Angeles County to count the homeless population. Each year Los Angeles volunteers, law enforcement and homeless services administrators participate in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. The purpose is to gather data that will be used to better serve the homeless population.

In Glendale, the homeless count was conducted on Tuesday night, Jan. 22, and Wednesday morning, Jan. 23. It was led by Ivet Samvelyan, Glendale Community Services manager.

On Tuesday night, volunteers were given a quick tutorial on how to respectfully approach those who are homeless and to ask if they would consider answering some questions. Volunteers, some who have participated for years in the count and others for whom this was their first time, were separated into teams and each team was assigned a Glendale police officer.

The homeless were asked how long they were on the streets, when they first became homeless and how they found themselves in their present situation. On Wednesday, the team that CVW was part of counted 13 people within a specific area in Glendale. The majority mentioned rent hikes as being the first action that put them on the street, and the inability to find affordable housing as what was keeping them there.

There were some who were obviously struggling with some type of addiction, although most did not admit to it. However, there was one woman who had just recently found herself sleeping on a bus bench. She had been born in Austria and had lived in the United States for over 40 years. She told volunteers she had been a wildlife photographer and had worked all her life but after rent hikes she struggled. When her rent was raised from $1,100 to $1,200 per month she simply could not afford it.

“Only $100,” she said of the increase.

She was in her 70s, had no family and was suffering from health issues. She did not drink or take any drugs outside of her medication for diabetes and multiple sclerosis. In contrast, there were two men found sleeping in the covered entrance of a building. They had been homeless for many years and had problems with drug addiction.

What was obvious to team members was that there is not just one type of person who fits the definition of homeless. The first person they met on Tuesday night was in fact a very happy elderly woman who would not like to be called elderly. She too was in her 70s and was very positive despite the answers to questions that painted the picture of a woman who left an abusive relationship years ago, moved to California from Texas and had slept on a bench the night before and was going to sleep on a bench that night as well. 

The other thing that became very obvious was the positive work the City of Glendale was doing with and for the homeless. This was reflected in the areas that had once been populated by homeless that were now clean and empty. That could be attributed to different factors including more cold weather shelters being opened during January or more homeless moving to Los Angeles from Glendale. But a major factor is the work done by Samvelyan and Glendale police officer James Colvin.

They will be quick to say it takes a team of people, including support from Ascencia, DiDi Hirsch and many other organizations, programs and community members, to assist the homeless. Ascencia provides a range of housing and programs to assist people out of homelessness. Many who were counted on Tuesday night said they had been in touch with Ascencia and were waiting to hear from the organization. And almost everyone knew “James.”

“They don’t call me officer,” said Colvin. “It’s just James.”

Colvin spends his days, and nights, searching out homeless to make sure they get the programs they need, if they agreed to reach out. But what was clear on Tuesday was what Colvin was able to offer the homeless was simple: someone who was ready to listen.

“This is Floyd and his dog White Sox,” Colvin said as the volunteers approached a homeless man.

Floyd joked with Colvin as he answered questions and, when the volunteer was done, Colvin told him he would check on him the next day.

While Colvin is the quiet side of the program, Samvelyan is a force of nature who does not seem deterred by … well, anything.

“I am going to give you my card. You call me or I will see you tomorrow,” she told one of the homeless who was interviewed.

She gave her card and offered help to everyone who was interviewed. She too seemed to know everyone.

“Oh no; he is back on the street?” Samvelyan asked of one of the men she met on Tuesday who had gone through the Ascencia program and, last she checked, he was on track to move on to housing. He had returned to the street and was sleeping in a dark corner of the city.

Working with homeless is not easy. Many of their stories reach deep into the heart and those who try to help can find it frustrating when those they try to help continue to slip deeper into addiction or mental illness. Yet Samvelyan does not stop. She hands out her card and hopes that next time when the person tries to get off the street he, or she, will make it.

“It’s about the wrap-around,” Colvin said.

The wrap-around refers to the city’s Continuum of Care (CoC) program that gathers all who help the homeless, like Ascencia, DiDi Hirsch Mental Health Services and local churches. CoC works with the unsheltered and low-income population in Glendale.

This was the first time volunteer Arthur Gazaryants was part of the count. He drove in from Calabasas because … “Ivet asked me to help.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I was surprised at how intelligent and well-spoken [the homeless he spoke to] were and how different each of their stories was.”

He also noticed the majority who said a rise in rent was a factor in their homelessness. He said all had varied issues as well.

“There was the young couple [we] spoke to, he was a carpenter,” Gazaryants said. “You know there is substance abuse, too. You could tell.”

He was also surprised at how many of those he spoke with had kept their sense of humor.

Nancy Salem had been on six homeless counts. She is a USC graduate and is now getting her Ph.D. in nursing at UCLA. She had conducted a study on homeless individuals who were 50 years old and older. She was first inspired to work with the homeless after she went with her church to Skid Row in LA.

“There was this man with [advanced] gangrene in his leg. I thought, ‘We live in Los Angeles, California – one of the [wealthiest] places in the world,’” she said. “This was the United States of America and we couldn’t provide care?”

There were more elderly women in this count, she added.

This is a trend that seems to be statewide and nationwide.

Salem said many older women find themselves homeless after their husbands pass away and they live on their social security as the only source of income. Many cannot afford the high rent in the Glendale and LA areas.

For Samvelyan, the homeless count is important to keep programs financed so they can help more people … help them from the streets to getting a job even though, she admits, some who are part of the count will not ever break the cycle.

“Some of these people I have known for over 20 years,” she said. “And sadly we had the one [man] tonight who was back on the streets … Some programs work, some do not, but we all work together.”

As the homeless population has grown, funding has increased form $2.8 million to $6 million; however, Samvelyan is continually concerned about what the results will be of the lack of affordable housing.

“Housing works,” she said of one of the most powerful solutions to resolving the homeless issue.

That was exactly what the elderly woman, who was a wildlife photographer, shared.

“I am not just looking for a place to sleep tonight,” she said. “I am looking for a home.”

The results from the count throughout the County will not be known for several weeks.