Counting the Homeless in Our City

On Jan. 23, Colin Beveridge and Marissa Branson (freshman and junior at Providence Christian College) participated in the annual Pasadena Homeless Count and Subpopulation Survey organized by the Office of Urban Initiatives in Pasadena.

Branson discovered the count through the mercy ministry at her church, Grace Pasadena PCA, and at the last minute (on January 15) she decided to volunteer. When she invited other Providence students to join her, Beveridge volunteered. That night, they attended an orientation meeting to learn about what they had just signed up for.

Neither Beveridge nor Branson had officially been a part of any homeless ministry or advocacy in the past. Conversations with homeless people were the extent of their interaction with the homeless.

At the meeting, they learned that the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development Department requires cities to count the homeless at least every two years in order to receive money for programs like homeless shelters, etc. Since 1992, Pasadena has counted their homeless annually, and for the past five years, the count has been organized by the Office of Urban Initiatives in Pasadena.

Urban Initiatives is a non-profit, non-partisan, faith-based organization that conducts research, promotes innovation, and shapes public policy in response to economic, housing, and social needs from the local to the global level. They have partnered with Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, where their office is located.

The purpose of the count is to provide statistics for the Pasadena Housing and Homeless Network. The committee who works on the network interprets the data and decides how to allocate funding to various programs. Some examples of these programs are bad-weather homeless shelters, transitional housing, and other institutions designed to prevent people from becoming homeless, help people who are victims of domestic violence, etc.

For the purpose of organizing the count, Urban Initiatives divides the city of Pasadena into 16 zones, which–according to past statistics–contain a significant amount of homeless or at-risk individuals. At the orientation meeting, Beveridge and Branson were each placed in groups of two to three people, each assigned to different zones in the city.

One week later, from 6:00-8:00am on January 23, Beveridge and Branson arrived at their designated zones to meet with their groups. They walked through all the streets in their zones, and if they saw someone who looked homeless, the group would ask the person for a few minutes of their time.

If the person agreed to talk, a volunteer would first ask if he or she was homeless. If the person said they were homeless, then the volunteer would ask for their age, sex, place of birth, ethnicity, and amount of years they had been homeless. The volunteer would also ask questions like, “Do you have any chronic diseases, and if yes, do these diseases prevent you from working?” *or “Were you released from a correctional institution within the past year?”*

Marissa Branson stated that about half of the homeless people she encountered were willing to take the survey. If a person refused to take the survey, volunteers were instructed to record their sex, approximate age, and ethnicity and leave the rest of the questions blank.

The evening of Jan. 23, from 8:00-10:00pm, the volunteers returned and walked through the same zones and surveyed again.

Marissa Branson stated that since it rained that night, not very many homeless people inhabited the streets. However, Janice Chan, a student at Fuller Seminary performing her practicum in the Urban Initiatives office, explained that besides the 16 zones that Beveridge and Branson were a part of, other volunteers were checking parks, freeway embankments, abandoned buildings, and homeless shelters; so it is likely that every homeless person in Pasadena was counted that day.

The person who left the greatest impression on Branson was an intelligent man who claimed he had answered questions for the count before, but was disappointed by the lack of change in the lives of the homeless. He was a man who desires to start a business but can’t get a loan for it. He critiqued the government for spending more money on the military than programs for the homeless and unemployed.

For Beveridge, he was shocked by a story that a homeless Vietnam vet told him. While living on the streets, his electric wheel chair was stolen from him, and then he got arrested for using a shopping cart to store his belongings. Beveridge also mentioned that a few different people had been shipped from other cities in the country and ended up in LA, given the option between being arrested or sent to Skid Row.

Beveridge and Branson both were convicted by the experience and plan to be involved in advocacy for the homeless and other marginalized groups in the future. Beveridge said that a lot of the people he talked to seemed to be longing for human contact, and were glad to talk with his group. Branson states, “I think that advocacy for the homeless can start in small ways, simply by treating homeless people like human beings and loving them like Christ loved the Samaritans, lepers, demon possessed, etc.”

Sofia Herrera, PhD, director of the Office of Urban Initiatives and a research faculty member at the graduate school of Psychology at Fuller Seminary, explained ways for students to be involved with Urban Initiatives. Fuller students (like Chan) often perform practicums with the office, which are like internships.

As part of her internship, Chan has organized the count for the past two years. Dr. Herrera stated that it is possible that students outside of Fuller could do internships with the Pasadena office. They also need people to help find volunteers by calling churches and sharing with them the importance of Urban Initiative’s research.

As for the homeless count, the Office of Urban Initiatives needs volunteers every January. They cannot do it without helpers. This is a way for students, as well as church members, to start involving themselves in efforts to end homelessness.

Dr. Herrera desires the church to be involved, and she hopes that people who help out with the count will find other ways to advocate for the homeless. She wants people to be aware of the poverty in our city, and ask questions like, “What does redemption mean for the world?”

To learn more about Urban Initiatives, and to see their proposed plans for ending homelessness, browse their website:


*These questions are not word for word, but they capture the essence of the questions they represent.