BY DANIEL MCGLYNN //
There’s no way to count all of the homeless people in a county the size of Rhode Island in a single morning. But the trained volunteers for the Homeless Count 2009 will try.
Fanning out across Contra Costa County during the early morning of January 28, the volunteers will document people living in the street and staying in homeless shelters. While not a full census of homelessness, “we look at it as a snapshot,” said Cynthia Belon, the director of the Homeless Program, and the information is important in understanding how bad the problem is, and how well aid programs are working. The count also meets a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requirement that helps the county qualify for federal homeless funds. Using the $7 million in HUD funds as well as money from state, county and local non-profit sources, the Contra Costa Health Services Department started a ten-year plan to end homelessness in 2004. The volunteers helping in this year’s homeless count will provide data for that program. “Overall that’s what is important about the count,” Belon said. “It helps us to show if we are ending homelessness in our community.”
Contra Costa County has more than one million residents, and a count in 2005 estimated 15,000 homeless. Previous homeless counts in 2005 and 2007 showed a decline in the number of homeless defined as “chronically homeless,” meaning they have reoccurring episodes of living on the street. The county’s 10-year plan also targets people who may be homeless for the first time: people in transition – from jail, the foster care system, or other social services – and families. Between 2005 and 2007 there was about a 16 percent rise in the population of homeless living on the street, but there was a 40 percent decline in the number of homeless living in shelters or transitional housing. El Cerrito, for example, had 139 people living on the street in 2005, and 117 in 2007.
Belon said that families will be of particular interest in the 2009 count because the downturn in the economy may have led to an increase in their numbers.
The goal of the County Health Service’s 10-year plan is to create more housing opportunities, Belon said. “Clearly we don’t have enough resources to deal with homelessness,” she said. Another key element of the plan is to get all of the individual cities working together and pooling resources to target homelessness.
To volunteer for the Homeless Count 2009, contact Rachel Goldman at 510-282-7840 or firstname.lastname@example.org before January 20. Volunteers need to go through an hour-long training session, which are scheduled the week prior to the Count. Volunteers will spread out in pairs across the county and go to specific areas to count people living on the streets and will be expected not to “talk or engage with the homeless,” said Belon, only to report their findings.