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San Mateo County Counts Homeless to Keep Federal Funding Coming

January 31, 2011

By Elizabeth Pfeffer
For the San Mateo County Times
Posted: 01/27/2011 08:36:44 PM PST

REDWOOD CITY — Under overpasses and behind broken fences, in fogged-up vans and hidden tents, there exists a group of people in San Mateo County who through misfortune and misstep have come to sleep on the street.

Officials conducted a census Thursday to better understand who the homeless are, where they live and what help they need. It’s not a perfect science — studying underground populations never is — but the goal is to obtain as accurate a count as possible, officials said.

The county is conducting the survey because any jurisdiction that receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is required to take a census every other year. San Mateo County supports most of its homeless and shelter services with a $5.7 million annual grant from the department.

Before sunrise, 245 volunteers, 85 who were homeless and serving as guides, gathered at 12 deployment sites on the Peninsula and took off in teams to count individuals, tents and vehicles that appeared to be occupied. .

In 2009, 1,796 homeless people were counted on the street and in shelters. This year’s results won’t be released until May, when other components, including a follow-up survey of 200 homeless people across the county, are compiled.

County officials said they didn’t want to speculate if the homeless population has increased because of the poor economy.

Aimed at combating chronic homelessness, the census will count people sleeping on the street and in shelters as well as a hidden population of individuals who crash at friends’ homes or squat in unoccupied buildings.

County Manger David Boesch volunteered as a counter this year, checking out a mostly commercial area of Redwood City with a 55-year-old shelter client named Dan and his case manager from Shelter Network, Douglas Pierce.

With the county Human Services Agency facing severe budget cuts because of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget plan, it’s imperative to keep federal funding for these programs, Boesch said.

During their search, the county leader, case manager and shelter resident peeked through fences, under freeway overpasses and behind restaurants, counting three homeless people, two vans that appeared to be occupied and two encampments.

Dan, who asked that his last name not be used, explained where they were likely to find encampments and what areas homeless people have been shut out of by police.

Pierce, who does outreach in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, said Dan was famous for his camp — which consisted of a tent, card table and propane-fueled kitchen — until it was broken up by police, forcing him to move indoors. He preferred life on the street to the crowded shelter he lives in now, and he fondly remembers drinking coffee and watching the sun come up from his perch by the train tracks.

“There’s a sense of freedom that’s very attractive to people,” Dan said. “I was totally comfortable.”

By the end of the morning, 93 homeless individuals were spotted throughout Redwood City as well as 95 cars and encampments. That number will likely increase as more data is collected and a multiplier is applied to the tallies, said Wendy Goldberg, manager of the San Mateo County Center on Homelessness.

The math determined there were 220 homeless people in Redwood City in 2009, up from 212 in 2007.

From 2007 to 2009, the census found there was a 13 percent overall decrease in homelessness countywide, but a 3 percent increase in the number of homeless families.

http://www.mercurynews.com/san-mateo-county/ci_17222801

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