The hushed chatter and shuffling of footsteps outside Santa Monica homes and businesses in the early morning hours Thursday were the sounds of the 2012 citywide homeless count.
In its fifth year, the count was underway with the help of about 180 community volunteers, plus dozens of Santa Monica Police officers and city staffers.
Between midnight and 2:30 a.m., they broke out into teams to comb every city block, under stairwells, in parking structures and in parks, looking for people in tattered and layered clothing and weathered skin who were sleeping on the ground or in cars.
From inside the Civic Center Auditorium, calls were placed to local healthcare centers, motels, jails and shelters, with the goal of enumerating and mapping those in Santa Monica without permanent housing.
Mayor Richard Bloom called the count an "important step" toward mitigating homelessness. The data—which won't be released until Feb. 27—will be used by the city when applying for federal and state funds, and to guide city officials in choosing who and where to allocate social services.
Homeless counts are mandated every two years by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all cities and counties that receive federal homeless funds. Last year, Santa Monica began conducting an annual count.
Shahad Shamji, who grew up in Santa Monica and currently lives just outside the city's borders south of the municipal airport, returned to the homeless count this year as a team leader. Armed with a clipboard and a yellow flashlight, he led three other volunteers through the residential neighborhood between Pearl Street and Ocean Park Boulevard and between 28th Street and South Centinela Avenue.
The first homeless man his team spotted was a scraggly-haired man toting a big backpack as he walked along Ocean Park. He was the team's sole tally of the night.
"We don't have homeless people in every area we're covering tonight," Natasha Guest, an administrative analyst in Santa Monica's Human Services Division, forewarned volunteers, who she suspected might be disappointed to return with a count of zero.
In 2010 and 2011, the number of homeless people in Santa Monica hovered at about 740. That's a significant drop since 2007, when the counts first began and volunteers noted 999.
There are 852 transitional and permanent shelter beds in the city.
Downtown sees the highest concentrations of homeless, primarily in an area bounded by the beach to the west, Santa Monica High School to the east and south of Wilshire Boulevard and north of the 10 freeway.
In 2011, Santa Monica participated in a countywide count, the largest in the country. The results of that survey were recently released: 51,340 people were without permanent homes, according to Guest.
City officials emphasize that tracking regional data is equally important to collecting local statistics. Twelve percent of the nation's homeless live in Los Angeles County, and Santa Monica, Skid Row and Venice are the most impacted.
To the tune of about $3 million, Santa Monica leaders tap the city's general fund each year to pay for a myriad of social services programs, including substance abuse treatment, employment services and housing resources.
Speaking of the social service programs, Bloom told volunteers Thursday night that "this entire program doesn't work without metrics."