ATASCADERO - In the City of Atascadero, someone tasked with estimating the homeless population might start with a tour of Sunken Gardens Park on a nice day. At least five people at a time with all their worldly goods in tow can be relied on to turn up.
But, in part thanks to the efforts of the Atascadero Police Department, the Gardens aren’t where those folks will be spending the night. And if they’re not in a bed at the Atascadero Warming Center, or at the ECHO Homeless Shelter there’s usually a great deal of ingenuity involved in finding a safe spot to bed down.
If one knows what they’re looking for the evidence of nomadic nightly habitation is apparent in public and semi-private spaces, small slices of domestic life strangely out of place in a brushy thicket. An electric kettle next to a waterlogged pack with bits of five-year-old mail in it for example, or a discarded chipped ceramic bowl beneath an oak tree. The evidence might be apparent, but to get a clear snapshot of what’s going on while polite society looks the other way the government wants eyes-on observations.
Once every two years, in late January, volunteers congregate early in the morning at local homeless shelters or other convenient staging centers, meet with their guide for the day, and set out to take a headcount of every homeless individual in their assigned territory.
This first phase of the San Luis Obispo County Homeless Point-In-Time Census and Survey process takes at most five hours, held to a strict routine to avoid double counts, and is easily affected by the weather. In 2017, torrential rain and wind leading up to the count suppressed numbers of homeless folks in their usual early morning hangouts as they sought refuge indoors. Ever
The weather was chilly but cooperative Jan. 28,
Laura Connery, of the San Jose-based firm Applied Survey Research, explained the process as she waited for volunteers to return from the field on Monday.
“The first part today is to find as many people out there as possible,” she said, explaining that several teams of two volunteers were assigned local guides from the current or recently homeless population to show them areas where homeless reside, “the guides can look down a street and see what we don’t...open fence holes for example or other clues that you or I might miss.”
For their time and expertise, guides are paid $15 an hour, which may stretch further here than it does in San Francisco or other areas where the firm has recently conducted surveys. The volunteers were asked not to make contact with anyone they see, merely making a note, and keeping the exact locations private.
Many of the guides will return for phase two of the operation. They will be furnished with survey sheets to have filled out in the field over the coming weeks.
As the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development dictates that all studies be conducted nearly simultaneously in the last 10 days of January to prevent double counts across transient homeless populations, staff resources stretch thin for firms responsible for collating the data.
Not all of the guides may be as comfortable going out and asking questions as they were showing strangers trails and campsites, Connery notes, but the data collected the first day will be valuable in assigning questions and determining which areas to focus on.
Numbers from this count likely won’t be available until May.