In the know
A homeless man helps conduct a survey of Chico’s homeless population
By attending a 75-minute training class, I became an official volunteer surveyor for the recent homeless census conducted throughout Butte County. I, by the way, am a member of that population.
On the chilly morning of the count, at 8:30 on Jan. 30, I walked up the steps to the City Council chambers—the census command center—as a woman slept bundled up in a sleeping bag and blankets on the ledge behind the six-fish fountain. My cynicism of bureaucracy led me to believe that she might have been a plant to demonstrate the city of Chico’s sensitivity to the issue of homelessness.
Sherry Morgado, an earnest woman with a ready smile, is the director of Chico’s Housing and Neighborhood Services Department. I asked her via email if Chico has a homeless philosophy. She responded by writing, “No, the City as a municipal organization does not. However, the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force (not a city organization, but a community group composed of parties and agencies interested in homelessness) does.”
The task force’s mission, she continued, was to benefit the entire community by providing safe housing “and by creating a forum for collaboration and mobilization of resources to help those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.”
The census folks are fully transparent as to their mission, which is basically to generate numbers that translate into funding from various sources, mostly governmental grants.
At 9 a.m. I was partnered with a competent woman who was doing an internship at the 6th Street Center for Youth, which serves homeless young people. We had asked specifically to be roamers in the downtown area. For two hours, we walked downtown asking people who self-identified as homeless many questions, some of which seemed particularly invasive: Are you on parole? What is the amount of your income? How did you become homeless?
We recorded their answers on a form, then handed them a $5 gift card redeemable at a grocery store. The gift card seemed dubious to me. The U.S. Census does not pay citizens to answer questions.
The cards were not donated, as many assumed. They were paid for by the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health. It was a clever marketing tool, as a significant portion of the homeless demographic is without resources at the end of the month. There were some individuals repeatedly taking surveys to get additional gift cards.
“That potential does not concern us as being statistically significant,” Morgado said, “since we know for sure we are not able to count everyone, and our numbers are quite probably lower than the actual persons who are experiencing homelessness.”
My partner and I decided we would be more effective if we split up, and Morgado trusted our instincts. For six and a half hours I walked a continuous loop from the downtown City Plaza, to Children’s Playground, then 7-Eleven and back to the plaza. I believe I had an advantage in being able to say to people, “I’m homeless as well.”
I filled out approximately 30 surveys, two of which were “tallied,” in that the probably homeless men were each in deep sleep on the plaza stage. I didn’t think it was appropriate to poke or shake them.
We were instructed to complete the task and move on. It was emphasized that we shouldn’t engage ourselves beyond the census. We were told we were not social workers or counselors.
At times, I couldn’t help myself. I said I was sorry to every woman who stated domestic violence was the reason for her becoming homeless. Alcoholism and drug addiction were also reasons sometimes given, and I expressed empathy, shook hands and said, “Good luck.”
Overall, most people were candid with varying degrees of comfort in answering the census questions. There was often a sense of sweet resignation, as in “this is my life.”
When I asked one man what his source of income was, he said, “Well, I’m trying to sell a little pot.”
One woman who stood swaying and moving her arms like a dancer as I asked her questions said, “You have to get out into nature to get away from the rectangles.” I followed her gaze and saw that she was staring at buildings.
When people responded that mental illness was among the reasons for their homelessness, I said, “Me, too.”
There was a young man who was particularly uncomfortable as I asked him questions. He kept straying off point by making odd and inappropriate comments. He gave me a look of defiance when he answered that, yes, he had been in foster care. Finally, moderately exasperated, I said, “Look, dude. Here’s the deal. I’m a volunteer and you have a choice to answer the questions or not. I don’t appreciate your behavior.”
He looked directly at me, then looked away and paused. Finally he said, “That’s the first time in my life someone has put me in my place without yelling and swearing.”
When we were done, I smoked a cigarette with him, then we hugged goodbye.