We met at the Police Training Center in Palm Springs at 6:30am, signed in, signed a waiver, got coffee and cookies and the two organizers present explained where we'd be going and stressed the importance of safety. Officer Barron Lane, of the PSPD was present and we were told that he would be with the interviewers at certain sites but that there had never been any trouble when the survey was conducted in the past. I knew from our earlier training session how much importance was placed on safety, and we had an agreed word which any member of our survey team could say should we ever feel uncomfortable in any situation. It wasn't needed.
Our team of three received our assignments which were to cover Sunrise Park, near the library on Sunrise Way, then the shopping mall on the opposite side of the road, the derelict land adjacent the Magruder building, the parking lot by the KFC, under a number of bridges crossing Tahquitz Creek and finally the Wangs parking lot. We were supposed to finish at 9am but continued until past 9:30am and frankly we could have done more. The count taken on its own would definitely UNDER represent the number of homeless people in Palm Springs as our instructions were not to enter any abandoned buildings for safety reasons and in the course of conversation I learned that nine separate beds had been seen inside the now empty Rock Garden restaurant building. That's nine people who, if they were in that building during the morning of our count, would not have been counted.
The variety of people, old and young, male and female, healthy and not was fascinating as were the various stories they told. I was particularly moved by some in particular: a man whose foot had been crushed by a car years ago and had been uninsurable; a man who had a wife and kids that were in sheltered accommodation, but who himself slept on the streets, who had no health problems other than the depression that being homeless was engendering. Some people clearly had mental health issues, but many others did not. Most were willing to be interviewed, all were grateful for the "goody bag" of socks, hat, soap and information that we had been given to hand to them after we'd interacted with them.
When we couldn't actually interview someone, we completed "observational" forms, (this happened on a few occasions as a group might congregate while someone was being interviewed), which enabled us to record a person in a way that avoided double counting, based on their appearance.
All in all it was an eye-opening experience for me and despite my initial apprehension, was one I would have no hesitation doing again.
We returned to "base", handed in our lanyards and completed forms, of which there were many, and I headed home a little after 10am to meet someone who runs a business on South Palm Canyon Drive. I told him about my morning's activities and he told me his recent experience with homeless people.
His business is in a flat-roofed building on which homeless people had been sleeping. Apparently they would also urinate down the air-conditioning ducts, the urine then finding its way into his premises. They also had a drum on the roof in which they were intending to set a fire to stay warm - clearly a huge potential fire hazard. My contact told me the efforts he had to go to remedy this situation, and it is now remedied, but it took a lot of hassle to do so.
And so my day reflected the tensions of the yin and yang of homeless people living in our town.
One of the most recent movements for dealing with homeless people advocates the importance of getting them into some form of accommodation first, before providing other support and a number of experiments are being run using small or tiny homes of 200sqft or less on City-owned land, (this is being done in other cities, not Palm Springs as yet). The rationale is that once a person has an address and a sense of place, other support services can be provided to help get them back into a more productive, mainstream life. This doesn't work for everyone but it does apparently work for a good number. In the case of my colleague, the formerly homeless guy, he told me that that stability was provided by a stint in prison, after which he was able to get his life sorted out enough to get a home, a job, and a car, (which is what he drove us around in all morning). It strikes me that prison could be a far more expensive way for our society to help homeless people than a low or no-rent tiny home for a few months while they get back on their feet.