LONG BEACH - Before dawn on a rainy Thursday morning, more than 200 volunteers dispersed across Long Beach to conduct the city's sixth biennial count of the homeless. | PHOTOS
Volunteers crouched and crawled under bridges, visited shelters, traversed the edges of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers and dropped in on some of the more well-known homeless encampments in the city.
Anyone walking the streets of Long Beach in the early morning with a trash bag or shopping cart loaded with cans was likely to be met by a cadre of volunteers.
By 5 a.m., many of the teams that covered 47 tracts throughout the city had already been deployed from the Multi-Service Center, the hub of the count.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires cities across the country like Long Beach with their own continuum of care systems to survey their homeless populations every other year to maintain funding.
In 2011, Long Beach tallied 4,290 homeless in the January count.
Those counted were people like Russell Richardson, a former Marine, who stays under a bridge by the San Gabriel River, where he said he keeps pretty much to himself and enjoys feeding the ducks who come to visit.
When an outreach worker shined a light up to Richardson and said, "We're doing the homeless count," Richardson replied, "Well, I'm one.
Although he has occasionally availed himself of services, such as going to the Veterans Administration when he needed medical care for an eye that was removed, Richardson said he takes few of the benefits available to the homeless.
"It's just another drain," Richardson said. "I don't want to be a part of that."
At an encampment known as Area 51, about six homeless have a nicely maintained encampment.
Todd, who asked that his last name not be used, moved here two years ago to get away from the Los Angeles River area, which was getting too rough and unruly.
"I like it much better in the country," he said.
At Area 51, Todd said he keeps fellow residents well-fed.
"We had a roast loin last night," he said.
The camp even has a mascot, Pepe the rooster, who is definitely not going to be on the menu.
Nearby was "Bam Bam" Deutch, who shares a tent with his dog, D-o-g.
Deutch said he has been homeless in Long Beach since 2003. His encampment, which he says is the 17th he has built at various sites, is decked out with a fire pit, a teapot, bird feeder and art work on a tree. A makeshift counter features several containers of Jack Daniel's mustard and Irish oatmeal, among other delicacies.
"We've all known each other a long time," Todd said of the residents, who look after each other and maintain rules, order and keep the encampment tidy.
Not all the homeless fare as well.
Luis Diaz, a veteran who lives under a bridge, seemed disoriented when awakened. A worker from the Veterans Administration asked Diaz if he would like services, but Diaz said he's only interested in restoring his benefit checks.
Despite the cold, wet conditions, volunteers were buoyed at the prospects of going out, not only to count the homeless, but deliver blankets, socks, toiletries and other items. At 8 a.m., as one van was returning from an early run, volunteers emerged with cheers.
"Aside from being wet and soggy a lot (of volunteers) are eager to go back out," said Elsa Ramos, the coordinator for the Multi-Service Center. "They're really excited at meeting people who might not otherwise know of our services."
This was the first year that it rained on the day of the count, which started in 2003. Ramos said some volunteers asked if the count would be conducted regardless of weather.
"They're still out there," Ramos said, referring to the homeless. "The least we can do is get out there and get them services."
The count attempts to form a point-in-time snapshot of the homeless population and its demographics.
Homeless are asked a variety of questions and the information is then used by the government to decide funding for various programs.
For many of the volunteers, the count is about connecting with an often unseen or misunderstood segment of the community.
Dave and Lorian Gordon, who were participating in their first count, brought hand-made hats and scarves Lorian had knitted to give away.
Lorian Gordon, who has rallied back from brain surgery, has a particular passion for delivering aid to the less fortunate, whether they are homeless or disabled.
"I know I could easily be on the streets," she said.
Paul Barry, the executive director of Mental Health America in Long Beach, has seen homeless and mentally disabled clients for years at his group's facility on Elm Street. But this was his first homeless count.
"Personally, it's just a reminder that these are humans out there," Barry said. "This is also a way to get service to them."