County’s count double last year’s

Are there twice as many homeless people this year, or was the annual count twice as effective?

DOWN FOR THE COUNT<br> Survey volunteer Patrick Clark (right) interviews a homeless man encountered on Humboldt Avenue just east of Park Avenue. The man asked not to be identified. Clark spent 12 hours last Thursday (Jan. 25) searching for and interviewing homeless people as part of a nationwide survey.

Survey volunteer Patrick Clark (right) interviews a homeless man encountered on Humboldt Avenue just east of Park Avenue. The man asked not to be identified. Clark spent 12 hours last Thursday (Jan. 25) searching for and interviewing homeless people as part of a nationwide survey.

Photo By Bryce Benson

Patrick Clark spent last Thursday morning (Jan. 25) going places others steer clear of—unless they’re homeless.

He counted homeless people under bridges while the air was still crisp and cold enough to see clouds of breath.

Near the abandoned Diamond Match factory in south Chico, he ran into a mother with her children, who were clearly homeless. They wanted no part of the survey, but he tallied them and continued the count.

At least one man opened up to Clark when he asked a question on the survey. “For what reason are you currently homeless?” Clark queried.

“Well, there’s a lot of reasons, I guess,” the man said. “I mean, I guess it goes back to my childhood. When I was 14, my dad shot himself at the dinner table, and on the year anniversary of his death my mother did the same thing. So, since I was 15 I’ve been taking care of myself and my siblings. Life’s been kinda hard, you know?”

Clark, a service coordinator at Torres Community Shelter, went into social-work mode but then remembered Thursday was about the count. Without an accurate representation of its homeless population, Butte County could lose funding to help individuals like this man.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers a one-week window for counties nationwide to perform a point-in-time count of the homeless in order to secure federal funding. Those volunteering Thursday had from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to count all the homeless men, women and children they could find.

Clark finished the survey and handed the man an information card for the Torres shelter and other local resources. Then he gave the man a $5 calling card, which were being handed out as incentives to participate in the survey.

After last year’s count yielded numbers thought to be low by area service providers, work began immediately to make Butte County’s second annual homeless census more accurate.

A survey was added to gather information about the homeless’ needs, and after 359 days of planning, nearly 150 volunteers and service providers scoured the county to count the uncounted.

Last year 778 homeless were tallied county-wide, with 570 found in Chico. Corla Bertrand, executive director of the Torres Community Shelter, estimated Tuesday that this year the count will end up around 1,500 county-wide. The population is twice as high this year partly because there are more homeless and partly because “an extensive collaborative effort” was made to ensure all who could be counted were counted.

Paradise provides a good example. A total of 37 people were tallied last year. As of Monday (Jan. 29), the number was already near 200, and Sarah Frohawk, who organized the effort with Youth for Change, expects it to end up over that number.

Community outreach allowed for a better count in Paradise, Frohawk said. Beginning Jan. 1, fliers were posted all over town informing people the homeless count was to take place Jan. 25. Women from the Church of Latter-day Saints also served a free lunch to try to get people to come out of the woodwork.

“People don’t think we have a homeless problem in Paradise because the homeless aren’t as visible as in a town like Chico,” Frohawk said. “But there are a lot of people living in a tent, their car or couch surfing.”

While those involved are pleased with this year’s efforts, many service providers still believe 1,500 is lower than the actual population.

“Riding my bike around town since Thursday, I’ve seen people in their cars or in places where I know nobody counted,” Clark said.

For a few hours Thursday, Mayor Andy Holcombe visited the Jesus Center, which opened its doors early that afternoon to help those counting at the kitchen.

“Whatever the number is, we missed a lot of people,” Holcombe said. “The feeling I got was, wow, we really worked hard this year, but there’s a lot of people who slipped under the radar.”

Holcombe, who chairs the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, a group that sponsored the event with the Butte County Continuum of Care, said they learned a lot from last year’s count that they were able to apply this year, and they will do the same next January.

Those involved will get some help from Chico State’s School of Social Work and Department of Geography and Planning.

“Our students will compile and analyze the data from the surveys and make a public demonstration in March to make all the info available to everyone, from county supervisors to people in the faith-based communities who want to help,” said Vince Ornelas, professor in the School of Social Work.

While service providers are pleased with the efforts and outcome of this year’s count, some criticized the guidelines HUD lays out for performing the count.

“I felt the way it’s set up is such an insufficient way to take a count,” said Dale Downey, who works as a housing adviser for Independent Living Services of Northern California. “The government does not want to know how many homeless people there are because the homeless don’t pay taxes, and it’s taxpayer dollars that have to be spent to help them.”

Frohawk added that winter is not conducive to counting the homeless, many of whom live outside.

“No one wants to know; as a country we stay blind to this population,” she said. “If the true numbers were collected, people would have to stop turning their heads.”