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Volunteers Conduct Annual Homeless Count

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Aired 1/31/11

Over the last seven days volunteers in cities around the country have risen before dawn to conduct an annual point-in-time count of their communities’ homeless population. Late last week volunteers for the San Diego Regional Taskforce on the Homeless conducted the local count.

— You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘show me the money.’ When it comes to federal dollar for homeless programs, it’s more like “show me the numbers,’ Those numbers indicate how many homeless people were in a community over a single night during the last week in January.

John sleeps in the back of his van in Ocean Beach.
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Above: John sleeps in the back of his van in Ocean Beach.

While the counts are a requirement for funding, no federal money is available to pay for the effort. So volunteers step up and fan out to do the tallying.

Walking through a Shelter Island parking lot in the pre-dawn hours, Allison Waters and two classmates found out it isn’t always easy to determine what signs point to homelessness.

They came across a van and it takes several minutes to decide whether someone could be living there.

“We’re identifying a van," Waters said. "Sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly would be identified as homeless., but we looked at the curtains, there’s mattresses, it’s covered all the way around in the windows, so we identified it as probably someone’s home – not quite sure.”

Waters marked the location on the map that the Point Loma Nazarene University students are carrying.

The women and their classmates were just a handful of the more than 500 volunteers out that morning identifying people sleeping on the streets.

Their professor of social work, Pat Leslie, said their involvement is part of a tradition.

"Point Loma is the place that designed the methodology for the point in time count," Leslie said. "Our founding congregation – the Nazarene Church – is very invested in homelessness and poverty. We have more than 100 kids invested in homeless ministries that they design and do every week.

Leslie says Point Loma is an area with low to moderate likelihood of finding homeless people. But, just a few miles away in Ocean Beach, one group of volunteers counts 85 individuals, vehicles and temporary structures.

Jon, a local homeless man who didn’t want his last name used, helped the volunteers locate people staying in more out-of-sight locations.

"My home is my van," he said. "I’ve been on the streets for a long time – just – out of luck."

John said he helped the volunteers because one of them – Christine Schanes, director of the Center for Justice and Social Compassion, helps him. Schanes said even though their group may end up with one of the highest counts in the county, it won’t mean they found everyone.

"Jon identified most of the vans for us and who he knew that was in the van," she said. "But – our frustration was that as we went down the allies, where John would say – well, there are people normally here – they weren’t there. So, I think we found less people than are usually here."

To get the final tally, the number of people who spent the night in emergency or transitional housing will be added to the overnight street count.

But the information gathering won’t stop there. Some of the people counted this morning were given invitations to meet another volunteer next week to be interviewed. That’s where Pat Leslie believes the important work really begins.

“We need to know who is out there and to reach out and build relationships," she said. "As we modernize and get more interested in outcomes and data and all of those things – the part that’s really getting lost in community is relationship.

To get dollars to support programs that help create those relationships, the data has to come first.

Joanne Faryon contributed to this story.

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