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Volunteerism by Example

The article below that appeared in the Antelope Valley Press exemplifies how the staff and alumni at Tarzana Treatment Centers are dedicated to helping those who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction.  We salute Nikki Miller and Stan Sorensen, our Director of Adult Services in Antelope Valley, for the valuable work they perform on their own time.

The article also points out the difficulties faced by those who are homeless   and may also need detox from alcohol, heroin, other opiates and drugs followed by alcohol and drug treatment.  Tarzana Treatment Centers has contracted with government agencies enabling many of Los Angeles County’s homeless to receive alcohol and drug detox and treatment services.


Agency Counts City Homeless in Alleys, Cars

Valley Press Staff Writer
This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press
Thursday, January 29, 2009.
LANCASTER - It takes a well-trained eye to spot a homeless person at 5 o'clock on a chilly Wednesday morning. 

Are those shoes sticking out from behind that Dumpster?
No, just motor oil bottles and a gray plastic bag.

Are the windows of that car steamed up on the inside?
No, they're frosted over on the outside.

Of course, at 5 a.m. most of Lancaster's homeless men, women and families are still asleep.
"A lot of them, they'll wait to get up until the liquor stores open," said Nikki Miller, one of approximately 100 volunteers who hit the streets of Lancaster on Wednesday morning to count the homeless.
At first blush, Miller's statement sounds harsh - it assumes that homeless people are all, or at least mostly, drunks or addicts.

But Miller speaks from experience, not derision or profiling. This past summer, before she started a program at Tarzana Treatment Center in Lancaster in September, Miller was homeless in Lancaster.
A self-described alcoholic, Miller said she spent many nights behind a liquor store at the corner of Avenue J and Division Street. She has also slept in cars and abandoned houses and in Jane Reynolds Park.

As she and Stan Sorensen, director of adult services at Tarzana Treatment Center in Lancaster, drove around Wednesday morning, Miller pointed out every nook and cranny that she thought might be a good spot for a homeless person to get some shut-eye. Sorensen, too, was homeless for a time, though he said being homeless in his late teens during the mid-'60s was a very different affair.
"There were not as many predators out and about," he said. "And drugs were not as rampant."

Nevertheless, he sees every parked car, every seemingly empty camper and every alcove in an alley or side street as someone's potential bed for the night.

Every two years, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, an agency run jointly by the city and the county of Los Angeles, organizes a homeless count.  Volunteers across the county sweep through streets and neighborhoods over the course of three days, counting homeless individuals, homeless families and homeless encampments.

The count is used to help officials at every level of government understand the extent of homelessness, said Victoria Mulhall, a Homeless Services Authority employee who helped organize the Lancaster homeless count.  Every county is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to count its homeless population.

"We want to understand how big a problem homelessness is in L.A. County," Mulhall told volunteers gathered at Grace Resource Center, the staging area for the Lancaster count.
"This count affects funding from the federal state and local government. …This is really important to what we're doing."

Before 2005, Sorensen said, the Homeless Services Authority got its biennial homeless count by surveying homeless services providers in the county, including Grace Resources and local homeless shelters.  LAHSA in 2005 set up the homeless count, which was performed again in 2007.

The 2007 count found that, on any given day, an estimated 68,608 homeless people, including 10,100 children under the age of 18, live in Los Angeles County, not including the cities of Pasadena, Glendale and Long Beach. Those communities perform their own homeless counts.  The Antelope Valley had 1,815 homeless people, according to the 2007 count.

In giving instructions to counters Wednesday, Mulhall was clear that the purpose of the count is not to reach out to homeless people or even speak to them.  "We're not asking you to approach anybody," she said. "You're just recording what you observe."

Volunteers were given maps of areas to patrol. Sorensen and Miller were assigned to search between the railroad tracks and Challenger Way between Avenue I and Lancaster Boulevard.

Counters don't cover every inch of the county. Rather, the cities and unincorporated areas within Los Angeles County are broken into census tracts, and counts of selected census tracts are analyzed to come up with estimates of area- and countywide numbers.

"This is scientific," said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Homeless Services Authority, explaining that the count system was derived by a biostatistician at the University of North Carolina.
She said Los Angeles County has more than 1,800 census tracts and that volunteers will count more than 700 of them this week.  "It's massive," she said.

Sorensen and Miller said an early January morning is not an easy time to spot homeless people in Lancaster, especially without getting up close to where someone might be sleeping.  "Winter is when it gets treacherous out here," Sorensen said. "It's not going to be smart to be where you're going to be seen."
"I don't know why they do it in January," Miller said. "It's a cold month."  Sorensen said he participated with the count in 2007 and knows some homeless people weren't counted because they couldn't be seen.  "The last time, I went around in Palmdale," Sorensen said. "And afterward, I went to Jack in the Box near the train station to get my breakfast, and I saw four people with shopping carts. And I bet none of them were counted."

Isaacs said the count is performed in January because that's when everyone around the country counts the homeless population.  "It's all in the same week," she said. "We're basically getting a picture at a point in time.”
"To get that picture, everything has to be done at pretty much the same time."

During the agency's 2005 and 2007 counts, Isaacs said, a large number of counters were homeless county residents who were offered stipends to help count.  This year, Isaacs said, there were more volunteers and fewer homeless counters.  "That was a very big part of our corps last time, and a very tiny part of our corps this time," she said.

That's good, Isaacs said, because more local volunteers means more local residents can see the problem of homelessness in their communities firsthand.  "If you get all these volunteers in their own areas, it helps people take some ownership over the issue," Isaacs said.  "This is homelessness in their neighborhoods. These are their neighbors."

More than 3,000 volunteers signed up for this year's count, she said.  Miller, who has been homeless more than once, said having an accurate count and having an accurate understanding of the scope of the homelessness problem is important because it helps get help to those who need it.
She said homelessness can happen to anyone.

"It breaks my heart that some people don't know there's a way to get out of it," she said. "And it breaks my heart even more that there's some people who don't want to get out of it because it's all they know."

Miller lost her home in Fresno after she was jailed for three weeks for child endangerment. She had let her 14-year-old son drive a car she had rented.  After getting out of jail, she realized that the car rental company had continued to charge her.  "I had $2,000 in the bank," she said. "And when I got out of jail it was (negative) $700."

She lost her house and her children - she couldn't afford the mortgage payment and her deceased husband's children were taken by their grandparents - so she started drinking.  "I had always been an alcoholic," she said. "Then all that happened and it all went downhill."

She said her lowest point was stealing liquor from grocery stores.  "I've really grown to have a compassion for people who are out there on the streets," she said. "Anybody can end up out there, and I have a whole new appreciation for that.  "And I really respect the people who help them."


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