The homeless count, no matter how bad the weather is

Kent Davy

2013_COLUMN_DAVY_smallerI was the wheel man, Betsy navigated.

We drove and peered through the steady flop of the windshield wipers, looking for the homeless in the dark, and with little success.

It was a cold and rainy Friday morning (Jan. 25) – we and other volunteers started at 5 a.m. and counted until 8 a.m. – and even though we covered 25 to 35 miles or more of Encinitas neighborhood streets, our tallies came in at zero.

Well, almost.

We marked down the locations of two vehicles that may have had people living inside (the covered windows raised the question) – one in a parking lot and another near the high school.

Betsy, an intrepid and “unsinkable” 88-year-old, and I were among the 800 to 900 volunteers for the San Diego countywide “We All Count” effort – the annual snapshot count of our homeless population.

The count, which is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and an associated survey, which is conducted during the hours and days afterward, is used by the federal government and local agencies to understand the homeless population, its size, geographical distribution, demographics and service needs.

The experts at the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which oversees the effort, estimate that somewhere around 10,000 of our residents are homeless.

Of course, many are attracted toward downtown San Diego, but North County has its share, living in canyons and riverbeds, out-of-the-way doorways and corners, and, of course, on the streets in automobiles.

Once, at the North County Times newspaper offices in Escondido, we discovered a man living on the roof of our building in an air-conditioning unit enclosure. He was one of the crew driving a truck carrying bundles of newspapers and would climb up a ladder to the roof in the middle of the night. Also, someone usually lived in the bushes caddy-corner to the building on Pennsylvania Avenue and someone else in a white van packed with his belongings parked next to our parking lot.

On this particular Friday morning, Betsy and I met at the Community Resource Center offices on Second Street. We were assigned three census tracts by the coordinator: neighborhoods east of Interstate 5 and south of Encinitas Boulevard, stretching south and east to Manchester Avenue.

These are mostly residential neighborhoods, filled with attractive single-family houses with yards and sidewalks and few places, it seemed to us, to be sleeping on the street.

We drove up and down most of the streets in the tracts and through each of the church parking lots in our area. We scanned the doorways and surroundings of the commercial buildings, particularly along Encinitas Boulevard. We looked for boxes and tarps that might hint at a sheltered sleeping spot – always mindful of our headlights and flashlight beams.

In the training sessions, we were reminded to be respectful, and that putting a light in someone’s face would be startling and only add to the trauma a homeless person might already feel.

But the rain was steady that morning and we saw no one who we would count.

Later, when we turned in our tally sheets, we heard that other teams had come back with goose eggs, too. When it rains, those without a roof become even harder to see as they look for places out of the way and out of the weather, a coordinator explained.

The count doesn’t just happen on the streets, either.

The shelters are surveyed, too.

And, while other communities have “rain days” in place, San Diego chooses to go forward, no matter whether the skies are clear or not.

And it seems fitting to count in the rain. After all, out in the rain is home for a lot of people.

Kent Davy is a Carlsbad freelance columnist and former editor of the daily North County Times