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Volunteers Make a Tradition Out of Helping People Experiencing Homelessness

Published: 3/18/2019

Alejandro Sosa woke up before dawn to continue an 11-year-long tradition. This tradition is not a usual one, but it’s one that means a lot to him. Sosa, 28, has volunteered at the City of Long Beach Homeless Count for more than a decade alongside hundreds of other volunteers to complete one objective - collect comprehensive statistics of the City’s homeless population.

Direct interaction with homeless residents was one of the many aspects that motivated Sosa to canvass with fellow volunteers. Sosa was noting information from an individual that morning when he mused about a trend he observed.

“There are a lot of sad things you see,” Sosa said. “I don’t know if it’s just my perception, but the homeless population seems to keep getting younger. Today, more than half of the people [my group] counted were in their 20s.”

The event was an opportunity for volunteers to inform people experiencing homelessness of existing citywide services like going to the Health Department’s Multi-Service Center where individuals can shower, seek health services, or receive information on affordable housing and much more. 

 “One of the resounding comments that we always get is, ‘Wow, [the Homeless Count] has really changed how I see the issue of homelessness,’” said Elsa Ramos, Special Projects Coordinator for the City of Long Beach’s Homeless Division, who has helped coordinate the biennial Homeless Count since 2009.

“[The Homeless Count] forces people to be in a situation where they’re starting to hear someone’s story...So you get to have a personal connection,” she added.

Ramos explained that this year’s Homeless Count was made possible by 34 teams of volunteers that scattered across 47 map segments of the city. She said that the count was the biggest outreach event the City could have in a single day.

Volunteers, who have attended a prior training, greeted people experiencing homelessness to ask questions such as the duration of their homeless experience and what services they have been offered.  Responses to questions are voluntary. The volunteers heard first-hand about the lives of those that society often attempts to ignore.

“Participation in the count helps break down the social walls we unconsciously create and allows the volunteer to connect with an individual as a human being rather than a number; it facilitates a connection to an individual that they would otherwise not be exposed to,” said Ramos. 

The count also provided volunteers like Sosa the opportunity to learn more about services that the City and partner organizations offer to homeless residents.

“I’m motivated to understand what the City is doing to address the problem of homelessness in the city,” Sosa said. “I think the services are good — obviously, they only have so many resources. I think the partnerships they have with different organizations is creating something that’s more productive every year.” Sosa also works at Century Villages at Cabrillo, and familiarity with the available resources helps him recommend appropriate services to residents. 

Michelle Gustilo-Smithson, 44, was another volunteer who makes combatting homelessness within her hometown one of her top priorities. As a child, Gustilo-Smithson recalled vividly her memories of downtown Long Beach, “I can still remember as a little kid, walking along Pine [Avenue] and there were just people on the streets with tin cans,” she said. “I knew that when my mom took me shopping, I would get my piggy bank out and fill up my Minnie Mouse coin purse because I knew I would see somebody and I would have to drop coins in. I would just tell myself when I was older, I’m going to help the homeless somehow.”

These days, Gustilo-Smithson cooks and serves meals at Project Achieve, a homeless shelter in downtown Long Beach. She mused about her experience interacting with people experiencing homelessness throughout the City’s Homeless Count.

“Once you start talking with people, you find out that they pursued coming out to California because they heard there were more [homeless] services out this way,” she said. “People come from as far as New York — and then you ask them how they got here. They’ll say they ‘took a bus’, ‘I hitchhiked.’”

Addressing homelessness is no easy feat. To truly address homelessness, Ramos stressed the capability of the community. She emphasized that the issue of homelessness is complex and can be best addressed with community involvement, such as volunteering at the City’s Homeless Count.

Since 1995, the Health Department has led the Long Beach Continuum of Care, a local planning body funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals. As a recipient of HUD funding, the Health Department is required to conduct a citywide homeless count at least every odd-numbered year; 2019 kicks off an annual count for the City moving forward. 

Collecting data on the number, characteristics, and service needs of individuals, families, and unaccompanied children experiencing homelessness is a critical component of local homeless planning and program development.

Accurate data helps the City understand changes in trends among homeless populations, adjust the types of programs and services available according to need and use resources as efficiently as possible, comply with reporting requirements, and measure community progress towards preventing and ending homelessness.

To learn about opportunities on how you can get involved in helping those experiencing homelessness, call 562-570-4500 or visit the City's Homeless Services website.

The next Homeless Count will take place in January of 2020. The Health Department will be releasing findings from the 2019 Homeless Count by May of this year.

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