4:30 A.M. JAN. 24, 2014
SAN DIEGO — A record number of volunteers took to the streets early Friday morning to count homeless people throughout the county, including in areas new to the annual survey.
“Some people say, ‘Do you want the numbers to go up? Do you want the numbers to go down?” said Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “I say, ‘If I count one homeless, it’s one too many.’”
The task force conducts the annual survey, known as the point-in-time count or WeAllCount, and the results are used to help determine funding for homeless programs in the county. Similar counts are conducted throughout the nation.
Last year’s count found 8,900 people living in shelters, in vehicles or on the street in San Diego County. The number represented a 7.7 percent drop from the previous year, although it still was 4.5 percent higher than in 2010.
“I can’t prove this, but I do believe the number was affected because it happened to rain last year,” Diaz said about the drop in numbers. “It made visibility more difficult.”
As of last year, San Diego was third behind only New York and Los Angeles in its homeless population, yet was 18th in the nation in receiving federal funds, according to Diaz.
The count has changed over the years, and Diaz said this year the San Diego Association of Governments helped improve maps for volunteers. Law enforcement officials also helped by highlighting maps to show where they believed homeless people could be found, she said.
Diaz said she’d like to see the count evolve to include more personal surveys of homeless people, although that will take more training.
At about 3:30 a.m. Friday morning, more than 1,300 volunteers countywide gathered in 20 deployment stations, including new locations in Ramona, Lakeside, Mira Mesa and Oceanside. By 4 a.m. they were on the streets with flashlights and clipboards for a three-hour count.
Numbers from the count, which included people in shelters and transitional housing, will be released sometime in the spring, Diaz said. As for the number of volunteers, Diaz said participation is up by about 400 this year largely because of a large number of county workers who joined in.
Volunteers also included a number of elected officials and civic leaders who gathered at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego to participate in surveys for the Campaign to End Homelessness in Downtown San Diego.
“They are the people who move the needle policy-wise,” Diaz said about the politicians. “And the other folks are the people who move the issue in other ways. It’s a way to keep this community aware of homelessness.”
Volunteers at Golden Hall included U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, state Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, San Diego Interim Mayor Todd Gloria and City Council members Sherri Lightner, David Alvarez, Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman.
Among the 45 volunteers at Interfaith Community Services in Escondido were realtor Donna Davis and Interfaith’s faith liaison Mary Ferro, who drove together in search of the city’s homeless.
“There’s one,” said Ferro as she spotted a homeless woman sitting by herself in an alley by a 7/Eleven at about 4:15 a.m.
The woman would be the first of 11 homeless people the two women would count in downtown Escondido.
A search through Grape Day Park and the alleys around Grand Avenue proved fruitless, however. While homeless people are not hard to find at night in downtown San Diego, they keep a lower profile Escondido.
“Let me assure you, they don’t want to be found,” Ferro said. “Especially in Escondido, because they’re trying to push them out.”
On Thursday, one homeless man spending the afternoon in Grape Day Park said the same.
“I go there at a certain hour, and I’m always looking over my shoulder,” Michael Maxson said about the secluded spot he has founded to bed down in.
Other homeless people in downtown Escondido were more brazen. Ferro and Davis spotted one man, uncovered and wearing shorts on a warm winter night, sleeping in front of a Mexican restaurant on Escondido Boulevard.
They found another person tucked inside a sleeping bag in the dark corner of a strip mall at Mission Avenue and Escondido Boulevard.
While the two women and other volunteers drove around the city, Escondido Police officers took on the more daring duty of riding bicycles through the flood control channel to search for homeless people.
The count is timed to catch homeless people while they are asleep rather than up and about, when they might be accidentally counted twice. Ferro said it’s not a perfect system, and there are probably who are missed than counted twice.
The count also included vehicles that people might be using as homes. Ferro said the task is easier on cold nights when inhabited cars can be spotted by their fogged windows.
Olga Diaz, Interfaith’s director of Employment Services, said that an unofficial early tally found 71 homeless people in Escondido, not including those in the winter shelter or transitional housing. Twenty-two inhabited vehicles and eight makeshift shelters also were counted, she said.
Last year’s count found 111 unsheltered homeless people in Escondido, 32 inhabited vehicles and six makeshift shelters.
Diaz said one team of counters also found a young mother on the street with a 10-month-old baby. The child was taken into Interfaith and authorities were called, she said.
Besides counting people, volunteers at deployment centers asked homeless people to fill out questionnaires about their background, health, financial situation and reason why they became homeless. In exchange for their answers, people received a $10 gift card from Subway and a hygiene kit.
Dolores Diaz said the survey is used to help identify specific needs in the region.
“When we survey folks, we ask them at the very end, ‘Is there anything you want to tell us?’” Diaz said. “And the thing we hear most is, ‘Homeless people aren’t bad. We’re just like everybody else.’”