Just yards away from the loading bay of a high-end mall in Walnut Creek, a team of county employees wearing yellow jackets with the word “outreach” emblazoned on the back made the steep climb down a creek shoreline and ducked under a bridge. After a brief moment, the team scurried back up, followed a few minutes later by the person they came to check on, Michael Anthony Ramirez.
Wearing a black fleece jacket and jeans, his hair cut short and goatee trimmed, Ramirez looked like he could’ve been heading to shop at the expensive stores in Broadway Plaza. Most people likely wouldn’t guess that he’s been calling the small space under this bridge home for the last year and a half. After a quick chat, one of the team members handed Ramirez two duffle bags full of toiletries before giving him a hug and letting him go on his way.
Ramirez was among the homeless people that Contra Costa’s Coordinated Outreach, Referral and Engagement (CORE) team found living outside in Walnut Creek during the county’s annual point-in-time, or PIT, count. In Richmond, which accounted for almost 14 percent of the county’s unsheltered homeless population in 2017, that number will likely be over 100 by the time the tally is finished.
The count, which took place from January 24 to 26 and was conducted by a team of 150 volunteers and county employees, will give officials a glimpse at the extent of the county’s homelessness problem. The data will also be sent to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a requirement for counties looking for federal assistance to tackle homelessness.
The numbers from this year’s count will be made public around April.
Recent point-in-time count data has pointed to a dramatic decrease in Richmond’s unsheltered homeless population, from 356 individuals in 2015 to 109 last year. However, Jaime Jenett, policy and planning manager for the county’s Council on Homelessness, believes the numbers may not account for the full story in West County. “We don’t have a good answer,” she said about the rapid drop. “I don’t think we have strong enough outreach to encampments and other folks who are harder to reach.”
The concern that homeless people in Richmond are being missed during the count is echoed by Michelle Milam, who serves as an advisor for the Richmond Homeless Task Force. “The PIT count is just that, just a point in time,” she said. “There is always undercounting.”
Milam said homeless people often try to stay in places where they’re out of sight. “In Richmond, the homeless go underground,” she continued. “You’ll find them around freeway property, railroad property, secluded places, places one wouldn’t normally think to camp in order to be counted.”
While the point-in-time data from the last decade suggests a steady overall decline in homelessness since 2011, it also shows that the homeless population may be shifting from West County to Central County, where housing is more affordable. In 2017, while 51 fewer homeless individuals were counted in Richmond, cities like Concord, Martinez and Pleasant Hill saw significant increases.
County officials are not sure why this spike occurred, although the closure of a service center in East County could also explain a shift towards Concord, which has the nearest site that offers basic services.
A new East County service center is on track to open in summer or early fall of this year.
For Jenett, the positivity of seeing the overall homeless numbers go down has been tampered by an increased risk of homelessness faced by certain vulnerable populations. She points to the county’s senior population, which has faced a 134 percent increase in homelessness over the last five years.
“People on fixed incomes, whose rents are going up, are showing up at our shelters at 85, first time homeless, and have no idea how to even start with that,” she said.
She also says that the number of homeless youth counted in recent years is low compared to the number of reports her office receives. At a recent outing to a community college, the county identified 13 homeless students within the first hour, a record according to Jenett.
Beyond counting the people living outside, the point-in-time count also tracks the number of homeless people who are currently sheltered. In 2017, 43 percent of the county’s population was found to be staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing. However, according to Contra Costa County Health Services, the county only has the shelter capacity to meet the needs of 41 percent of those single adults.
Lavonna Martin, director of Health, Housing, and Homeless Services, says the county tracks the number of sheltered people by accessing data on who’s using their services, conducting surveys at soup kitchens and community sites, and operating a telephone service that allows them to call in and describe their situation.
But the true total number of homeless people, some of whom may be staying on the couches of friends and family members, is nearly impossible to track.
Another concerning trend for county officials is the racial breakdown of the homeless population. Currently, black residents make up only 9 percent of Contra Costa’s total population, but 33 percent of its homeless population. The county is 25 percent Latino, but that population makes up 22 percent of the homeless.
“The racial and ethnic disparities that we see in homelessness, reflect what we see in the racial disparities in other health and social welfare indicators,” Jenett said. “I see homelessness as this nexus for so many issues: poverty, health, and criminal justice.”
CORE team members are tasked with reaching out to this community, bringing supplies and building relationships. The program, which has operated for about a year, has been received positively by many homeless people they’ve interacted with.
On the morning of the count, Robert Muchmore, a 63-year-old Walnut Creek native, sat by a fire alongside Las Trampas Creek with friend Jeff Cooper and his dog. He said he’s happy see CORE employees on a regular basis.
“I understand their reasoning behind it,” Muchmore said. “If they don’t know what they’re dealing with, how can they deal with it?”
Ramirez, a former contractor who had a hand in building up downtown Walnut Creek, is thankful for the assistance he gets from CORE, but wishes more was being done for people worse off than himself.
“It just seems like there could be a lot more,” he said. “It’s job opportunities, for Christ’s sake, you know, putting people to work doing these things, taking care of other people.”
“It’s healthcare,” he continued. “It’s human nature.”
J.P. Dobrin contributed reporting for this story.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a shelter closed in East County. The facility that closed is actually a service center.