Dozens of community volunteers fanned out across Contra Costa County early Wednesday morning to help with the county’s 2011 homeless count. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires all cities and counties receiving federal dollars for homeless services to conduct a count at least every other year.
The informal census—happening all across the U.S. this week—is one factor HUD takes into consideration when determining the amount of funding it offers to each municipality. Each year, HUD provides Contra Costa with about $9 million to help sustain its programs, which assist homeless people with basic needs like food and clothing, and offer housing services, job training, drug treatment, and health services.
Lavonna Martin, deputy director of the county’s homeless programs, said the count—in addition to being required—is just good practice. “We need to know how many homeless people there are to better inform policy and find out what services are needed,” she said.
Martin said the count was just a snapshot of the homeless population, which in 2009, the county estimated to be around 4,000 people on any given night.
Early Wednesday morning, volunteers gathered at community centers in Richmond, Concord, and Antioch where they were paired in two’s before driving around to tally the number of homeless people they could see out on the streets.
The total number of the homeless counted—not yet released—is the sum of those spotted by volunteers surveying the streets, those identified by staff at shelters, and those counted by outreach workers familiar with encampments hidden from plain view, which are often in the back of parking lots, near railroad tracks, or in the narrow confines next to highways.
In addition to simply counting the total number of homeless this year, the county also tallied the number of homeless families and single youth. The number of people in these groups is expected to have increased as the repercussions of the economic downturn continue to be felt.
Chris Caldwell, a cook at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP)—a homeless shelter in central Richmond—said he’s seen more families come to the shelter since he started working there two years ago. “Everyone seems to be just one step away from being outside, standing in line getting food,” Caldwell said.
19-year-old Enil, who declined to give his last name, has been staying at GRIP for a few months with his fiancée and newborn son. Enil came to the U.S. from Honduras as an illegal immigrant with his parents when he was two months old. He spent some time in juvenile hall and county detention before being turned away from home by his mother last year, he said.
Now, Enil is trying to find a job to support his family. It’s really hard trying to get work “if you don’t have a number,” he said referring to a Social Security card. “You’re stuck standing out front of Home Depot.” Enil is hoping to get some work through GRIP.
But if the county expects to see more single youth and families, the number of unsheltered homeless people—those who live outside—has been declining. In 2009 the number of unsheltered homeless in the county had dropped by 38 percent. Often times, those avoiding shelters have mental disorders that make it uncomfortable for them to live around other people; some also have concerns about strict rules or invasion of privacy. So they end up living in encampments tucked away in the woods, down by creeks, or in hidden pockets next to the highways.
One typical encampment is on a narrow stretch of dirt off of Carlson Boulevard and the I-80 overpass marking the Richmond Annex. On Wednesday morning, as the county outreach team performing the count approached, four men were sitting there on piles of blankets with their belongings scattered around.
Samuel Vazquez, 33, was stretched out on his bed, shivering slightly. “It’s nice sometimes seeing the stars and everything, but not when it rains,” he said while fiddling with a small bottle of Seroquel pills, an anti-psychotic medication often used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Vazquez said he’s been taking the medication for the past five years. He said he was kicked out of a drug treatment program and moved back home; after he started drinking his mom then kicked him out. He’s been staying at this encampment on and off for a month.
Cynthia Belon, director of the county’s homeless programs, walked with her outreach team through a narrow pass and over uneven ground to Vazquez and the others. She offered Vazquez a bed at the Brookside shelter in Richmond. Vazquez was open to the idea and accepted an offer to drive him over there later.
Vazquez said he had heard Brookside was “a pretty good place, but it has a waiting list.” Either way, he said it wasn’t like the central Richmond’s Bay Area Rescue Mission, where staff “wake people up at 4:30 and boot you out for the day.”
Belon later cited the contact as a small victory. “Even if he doesn’t go, as long as he knows where it is and that he can go later or tomorrow, it’s a success. It’s really just baby steps,” she said. It’s much easier to link up people to services when they are at shelters Belon said. The longer people stay in encampments, the less likely they are to get treatment for health concerns, return to work, or find permanent housing.
Shayne Kaleo, an outreach worker for the county’s homeless encampments, suspected Vazquez was new to the area. “If he’s willing to give it a shot, we need to catch him early, before he gets settled in.”
About a quarter of the unsheltered homeless in Contra Costa are women and they are at particular risk for violence and assault.
One such woman is Mary. She’s 53 years old and has a small makeshift home beside the train tracks along the narrow strip that connects Richmond proper to Hilltop. Her home is a construct of carts, boxes and sticks covered with a large blue tarp.
Wearing a pair of faded brown jeans held up with a rope strung through the belt loops, a grey hoodie caked with dirt, and gloves with the fingertips cut out, Mary said she’d just been tidying up when the outreach team arrived. “I just cleaned along the track yesterday. Everything’s cleaned except me,” she says with a smile.
Mary described her struggles with some of the men living nearby. They often harass her and make a mess out of the encampment, she said. “I’m so tired of these guys around me,” she said. “It’s not just picking up the garbage but other things.”
Dudley Luckett, an outreach worker who’s known Mary for years, says she’s a target for the men’s violent behavior. “I know she’s been abused out there a couple of times,” he said. Luckett said Mary suffers from some serious mental health problems, but that she’s reluctant to get help for them. “I’ve done everything except knock her over the head and bring her in,” Luckett said.
Mary has been homeless for at least a decade said Kaleo. She has been to shelters a few times, but “she brings her mildewey clothes—the clients there get upset, and Mary gets embarrassed,” said Belon.
Kaleo said her job is all about helping out people like Mary and letting them know they have options. But some options—like treatment for mental health issues—would require Mary to take a trip. It’s difficult work convincing someone to get help, Kaleo said. “We’re serving their immediate needs first and hopefully they’ll get sustained help after.”
As they were leaving, the outreach workers promised to bring by some food and goods the next day. “There are people that want to help you,” Belon reminded Mary. “When you’re ready, they’re ready.”
Mary looked up, nodding her head. “I’ll get out there eventually,” she said. “I’m just not ready to take the next step yet.”