Every year in January, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) mandates a Point in Time (PIT) count to obtain an idea of the amount of homeless individuals. In this area, Stanislaus County coordinates the count with the cities with local area managers for each city. Although the total count has been completed and approximately 25 unsheltered homeless individuals were reported in Riverbank to HUD, city staff and other groups believe that the true amount is about three times that count. At the City Council meeting on Feb. 25, city staff was authorized to move forward with a summer homeless count by a council vote of 5 to 0.
Riverbank City Human Services Specialist Norma Torres-Manriquez was the area manager for Riverbank. Torres-Manriquez, City Manager Sean Scully and nine other volunteers hit the streets of Riverbank to contact the unsheltered homeless at the end of January. This is Scully’s second year volunteering for the count as he wanted to be part of the action and not just coordinating.
“Last year was an eye-opening experience,” said Scully. “You really don’t know until you go out and see where a lot of the folks are actually living and where those populations are generally the truly unsheltered ones are hanging out that you know how difficult it is to survive without shelter. It helped frame the problem for me a little bit. You also get to meet a bunch of people from the community that you don’t normally see very often. I got a lot out of it.”
The volunteers go out into different areas of Riverbank and talk to the homeless people that they meet, inviting them to fill out a questionnaire so that they can have a better understanding of their situation. With the City Council making homelessness a priority, it was important for Scully and Torres-Manriquez to be hands on with the count.
“Last year we set up zones around the city and we used the same areas this year plus anybody else who gave us suggestions on where they could be staying,” said Torres-Manriquez. “We kind of noticed a trend that they are in, for example, the overpass and then they start to get up and they start to wander onto Patterson Road and Atchison.”
The count is a snapshot of one single day so it may be a day that has several homeless people or it may be a day that several homeless are not in the area. Although community members may get frustrated because they want city staff to count people and have them fill out the form after the one day count has been completed but due to the rules supplied by the federal government they cannot.
“They take all of the counts from all the cities and county area and package them all together and you get an idea of the total homeless population in our county by city,” stated Scully. “It directly impacts funding on what we receive from the feds and the state to give services and programs. So obviously it is the way the federal government figures out how to allocate money.”
The count started early in the morning with a staggering of volunteers with one group leaving at 6 a.m., another at 7 a.m. and the other at 8 a.m. That day was also the day for the food giveaway at the St. Frances of Rome church so Torres-Manriquez and volunteers manned that area to talk with individuals receiving services.
The PIT count was low last year at about 11 people. The volunteers hit the streets with the surveys that have questions like where do you sleep, did you stay at a shelter, age, month and year of birth, physical, mental or emotional impairments, ethnicity and why they became homeless. If people refuse to fill out the form the volunteers can fill out an observation portion of the survey where they give specifics and indicate why they are doing an observation.
“So this year we had 20 total surveys but there was a handful in there that were observations,” explained Scully. “So what the county basically does is they will look at every form and they will determine if it is filled out enough and then the observations ones they try to compare to other observations so that you are not double counting people.”
He had about five observations in his group that was over by the river heading north.
Although the official count may not be provided until October or November, Scully had it added to the agenda to do another count during the summer. There were discussions at the recent Mayor’s meeting about a summer count as well due to the PIT not being foolproof and last week it was approved by the council to add that second survey.
The PIT count does not include people living in their cars, living on other people’s couches, or in garages.
They are confident that although the unsheltered count was around 25 the real number of homeless in Riverbank is two to three times that amount. Other non-profits and churches concurred with that notion due to all the people they feed at food giveaways.
There are specific areas that the homeless frequented including chronic homeless people along the river’s edge and remnants at places where people were camping.
“Overall I would say that it is a difficult situation for Riverbank because it is a good thing and a bad thing,” expressed Scully. “It is good that we really don’t have as many visible outside chronic homeless unsheltered individuals like a Patterson does or Modesto or Turlock. But we have populations that need to be served and we haven’t been able to figure out a way to represent them in this count because they don’t qualify under the rules that we have to operate.”
The solution is not easy as each homeless person’s situation is different whether it is mental health, addiction, bad luck, family tragedy, or their choice – and officials said the city of Riverbank would like to work to provide affordable housing, services and programs for those that do need help.