Count on it

SN&R’s reporter joins an early morning effort to tally the county’s homeless

This is the only home for too many in Sacramento.

This is the only home for too many in Sacramento.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“The park’s too exposed, but this would be a good place.”

The tall, dark-haired woman aimed her flashlight into a narrow, U-shaped spot between a building and the berm on which the train tracks sit. When she found a blanket and some scattered debris in the spot, there was little doubt that this recently had been a campsite, someone’s temporary home.

“Check over by the bathrooms,” said Suzanne Hammer, a leader in the recent effort to make a “point-in-time” count of how many homeless live in Sacramento County. It was early last Tuesday morning—between 4:30 and 6:30—and service-agency workers, law-enforcement personnel and volunteers (like the dark-haired woman) had awakened early to join the count effort. Teams of four or five people took up flashlights and walked targeted streets, alleys and parks of Sacramento, checking for the people who live there. In addition to all of downtown and most of Midtown, teams went to outlying areas—one as far as Citrus Heights—to count in areas where homeless people are known to seek shelter overnight.

The census is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a condition of receiving federal money for homeless programs and is conducted every two years. The last such survey, in 2005, counted 2,229 people. Still, it is estimated that some 8,000 to 16,000 homeless people are living in Sacramento at any given time. The key word is “estimated,” and the number depends on the means used to arrive at it.

Hammer, program manager for the Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance’s homeless programs, led a team assigned to count a long, narrow territory that ran along C Street parallel to the railroad tracks, with bulb-shaped spots near McKinley Park in the east and the Blue Diamond complex in the west. It took the entire two hours to cover, with a number of likely spots that were inaccessible. Members of the counting teams were instructed not to venture into fenced-off or potentially unsafe areas.

In addition to avoiding dangerous spots or trespassing, “it’s extremely important not to disturb the people we’re counting,” Hammer said. “We are basically going into their bedrooms” to count them, she said.

On the north side of McKinley Park—a relatively affluent area in this territory—the team found a couple of cars with people sleeping inside. Team members were told not to shine lights inside. “Just determine if there’s someone in there, and how many, if you can,” Hammer said. At least one, a small van, appeared to have more than one person inside. “It’s most likely a woman with children,” she said. Almost a quarter of the homeless in Sacramento county—22 percent—are families with children.

A man walked toward the team, carrying a large backpack. As soon as he spotted the flashlights, he crossed the street and disappeared into McKinley Park.

“Count him,” Hammer said.

Another fellow appeared to be an early rising resident walking his dog until team members realized that in addition to a dog, the man was carrying two large bags, likely containing all of his worldly possessions. “Dogs can be a real barrier to housing for some people,” said Hammer. “But on the other side, the owners really need and love them.”

With time running out, the team piled into a member’s SUV and drove slowly through alleys and side streets to cover as much of the territory as possible. There were more people: sleeping in cars; on a bedroll set up between a dumpster and a fence; a man lighting a cigarette, surrounded by his stuff.

Some local homeless may have been hiding from the counting teams. “The news about the count was turned into a rumor that there would be a raid on camps,” said a team member who works for an agency that provides services to the homeless. “So some people may be hiding tonight.”

Hammer wasn’t so sure it would take much of a rumor about raids. “Just a bunch of people tramping around shining flashlights would be frightening,” she said. “I’d hide from that.”

But it turned out that some of the fears of a raid were justified. The same night that the count was taken, county parks employees cleaned up at least one established camp on the river and sent its residents back onto the streets, where they may—or may not—have been counted by a team of volunteers.