The count is part of a federal mandate: All communities that receive federal Housing and Urban Development money to help the homeless must tally their homeless population during the last week in January.
According to Bill Mendelson, one of the coordinators of the count for San Joaquin County and executive director of Central Valley Low Income Housing Corp., it’s a vital step toward understanding the scale of the homeless problem.
“It provides both local communities and the nation as a whole a yardstick to determine the scope of homelessness and the chance to evaluate what impact local programs have had since the previous count,” Mendelson said.
He explained that since 2005, when volunteers drove around in the middle of the night trying to count the homeless on the streets, local communities have decided that it’s more accurate to ask homeless individuals to show up at a central place. It’s a procedure that worked well in 2007 and 2009.
“Within San Joaquin County, the real effort is to count the unsheltered homeless,” Mendelson explained. “(We determined) the best opportunity to count the unsheltered homeless and obtain information about them was to hold a series of events that would attract people who are homeless.”
He explained that the city of Tracy was a big supporter of the 2011 effort, just as it was in 2009. He said word was put out by the Tracy Police and Tracy Fire departments, as well as charitable groups like Tracy Interfaith Ministries.
But the event — at which no fewer than 20 charities and organizations offered information, food and toiletries — wasn’t just a count. It was also part of an effort to connect homeless and other needy members of the community.
It’s just that, on Thursday morning, fewer homeless than expected showed up.
An hour and a half after the Tracy Community Center’s doors were opened, hot food was being served by Apostolic Center New Life Church, information had been handed out by nearly every group present, and the count was in full swing. Even though final numbers won’t be available for some time, volunteers there said turnout was significantly down compared with two years ago.
“It’s kind of unexplainable,” said Dale Benner, director of New Directions, a substance abuse outfit based in Stockton.
It’s a surprise, Benner said, because the actual number of Tracy residents in need hasn’t decreased. If anything, he and others Thursday morning agreed the need is still on the rise.
“We’re seeing a lot of people hurt by the economy,” said Dennis Buettner, an outreach coordinator with county mental health.
Randy Pianelli, a coordinator with Care Link, agreed.
The director of the program that helps homeless people find medical care said he’s seeing more of the “hidden homeless” — those staying in sheds, garages or any place they can find shelter from the elements. Many of them have lost jobs, and some have relapsed into drug abuse or simply couldn’t afford the medication to keep mental health trouble at bay.
“We now see a lot more people you wouldn’t think of as homeless,” Pianelli said.
Pianelli added that Care Link serves as many as 2,000 clients a year, and more than 1,000 of those each year are new to the program, which means more and more people are finding themselves in need of help — a disconcerting trend he’d like to reverse.
“I think we wouldn’t mind putting ourselves out of business,” he said.
Pianelli said Care Link serves as many as 50 Tracy clients a year, though those patients have to travel to Stockton.
Sandra Cubias, a Tracy resident, showed up Thursday with her mother, Marina, and her infant son, Adair Nunez, in hopes of finding medical care for her younger sisters, who need glasses and treatment for asthma.
“We came to get some info about doctors and to get some help,” Cubias said.
The family can’t afford the care on their own, and Cubias said she’s been stalled trying to apply for Medi-Cal.
Her situation is one that’s playing out all over the county, and it can be a challenge for organizations to keep up.
But Buettner stressed that many groups in Tracy, especially churches, the Coalition of Tracy Citizens to Assist the Homeless and other charities, have “stepped up to the plate.”
“There’re a lot of people doing a lot of great work,” he said.
The trick, he said, is to connect the homeless with the tools they need to get their lives back on track.
“You can offer the help,” he said, “but you want to walk with them, not carry them.”
• Editor’s note: Bill Mendelson is the father of Tracy Press associate editor Jon Mendelson.