While students majoring in geography and geology usually study physical properties of the earth, those in the Department of Earth Sciences at California State University, Dominguez Hills are examining the impact of human needs and man-made effects upon the planet. Last month, members of the Earth Science Club participated in the biannual homeless count sponsored by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA).
The club’s president, Daniel Pearlman, says that the earth and environment major has “a lot of focus on interactions with people. The way they structure the program will prepare us to be policymakers and involved with how decisions are made.”
Pearlman and his fellow students were sent to the communities of Paramount and Redondo Beach on the evenings of Jan. 26 and 27. Although they were unable to find a minimal number of homeless in both cities, Amir Davis says that being able to experience an environment up close rather than just on a map was illuminating.
“It was a good way to get a little hands-on experience in urban geography and relating thematic maps to actually going out in the field,” he says. “When you look at a map, you’re seeing something from the air. When you’re on the ground, you can actually identify… a polygon of a triangle [on a map] as a building and an alleyway in the back is where a homeless person might be.”
Junior Yair Pilowsky has lived in Redondo Beach for 13 years and says that although most of the homeless people he sees are only traveling through the beachside community, there are a few sections near the San Diego Freeway where there are encampments within the city limits.
“It’s a good idea that Redondo Beach got involved,” he says. “People wouldn’t think there were homeless people there, but there are some, and they do have needs as in other places. This is just one of the ways of finding a solution.”
“It says a lot about the economy,” says Pearlman of the city’s first year of participation in the homeless census. “Obviously, parts of L.A. like Skid Row have had a homeless population for a long time. Maybe this is the year that it finally needed to be done.”
Davis says that while they were sent to “nice neighborhoods, so we didn’t expect to see any homeless,” they did see one individual who they thought might possibly be living on the street, and were pointed toward a house that was known to be inhabited by the homeless. He says that even self-governing cities like Redondo Beach need to be part of the larger Los Angeles region when it comes to knowing the size of their homeless population.
When in training sessions for the LAHSA volunteers, the students were given guidelines on how to determine their numbers and how to behave when encountering the homeless. Pearlman says that it was up to their best judgment to decide if the individuals they saw were to be counted.
“[LAHSA] didn’t want us to interact, it was purely about gathering data,” he recalls. “They didn’t want us to talk to anybody or ask them if they were homeless, they wanted us to visually make our best guess. Several times in the training pamphlet, it said to keep a respectful distance. It said, ‘Flashlights are for paper, not for people.’ They gave us business cards and said, ‘If someone comes up to you needing help, give them this card, it has a number to call. We can help people tonight if they need it.’”
Pearlman says that the experience was invaluable to himself and his fellow students in providing them with a first-hand glimpse at the types of fieldwork they can look forward to as graduates of the program. He says that they learned about the importance of gathering quality data.
“A lot of it was seeing the process up close,” he says. “When you go and collect data, the most important thing is the quality of the data. To have someone on the other end of our numbers, kind of relying on it, makes it important.”
Pilowsky says that although homelessness is a big problem, the LAHSA’s count is just one of the ways to reach a solution. He also says that the experience of participating in the count was helpful to members of the Earth Science Club in exploring future career paths that will improve life on earth for all humans.
“Our major is really broad,” he says. “Everybody has to [find] a specific field. There are so many areas that we talk about world problems, that you have to specify your niche. We’re all in the process of finding what we want to do.”
Pearlman says that at least for now, he hopes the experience will help Los Angeles County address the ongoing issues of assisting the homeless.
“[Homelessness is] not a problem that’s going to go away,” says Pearlman. “It’s about finding the homeless and allocating resources to them.”
Judith King-Rundel, lecturer and advisor to the Earth Sciences Club, says that students in her department display a great commitment to environmental issues beyond the campus organization, and that several have served as interns for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, assisted with planting and weeding at Madrona Marsh in Torrance, and volunteered for clean-up days at local beaches and the Los Angeles River.
“The department’s message is all about environmental sustainability, and [in classes] from Environmental Geology to Biogeography to Geography of North America, the students continually get this message,” says King.
King says that although the earth and environment program at CSU Dominguez Hills is relatively new, geographers have had a tradition of studying human interactions with the physical world.
“Within geography you find both ‘human’ tracks and ‘physical’ tracks,” she says. “In geology, the solid earth is certainly the major area of study, but more and more geologists have become involved with hazard abatement and environmental protection. Our students really have the best of both worlds and take classes in all three areas. The restructured “Earth and Environment” department offers [courses of study] to students that are very integrated.”
On Feb. 26, the club will be assisting the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy during the organization’s Volunteer Work Day on Feb. 26 from 9 a.m. to noon at the White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro.
Membership in the Earth Science Club is open to students of all majors. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Earth and Environment program at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.