Jason Bush trekked down a foot-worn trail onto the grassy banks of Atascadero Creek downtown as he headed toward a homeless camp; an empty sleeping bag lay in the foreground.
Bush lives on the opposite side of the creek, he said, pointing to a nearby outcropping of rocks near a bridge.
A 36-year-old who has been homeless for almost two years, Bush was one of several guides who were given prepaid charge cards to lead teams of volunteers throughout San Luis Obispo County at daybreak Wednesday to tally the county’s homeless population.
The count’s totals, which are still being finalized, will be coupled with a subsequent survey and released in a county-funded enumeration report to be completed in March. The counts tallied in all areas were rough estimates that still need to be verified, organizers said.
In all, about 1,150 people on the streets, creekbeds and parks were counted from Nipomo to San Miguel, east to Shandon and north past Cambria. The goal was to tally the number of homeless people countywide on a specific day.
The resulting report will be used to help local agencies qualify for state and federal funding for homeless programs as well as provide the community a snapshot of the homeless population.
In 2011, the county’s homeless enumeration report counted 3,774 people without permanent housing.
There are several changes to this year’s tally.
First, the totals are expected to be lower after the federal government said it would no longer count multiple people living in one household, instead restricting the count to people who sleep in a vehicle or a park, an emergency shelter or transitional housing.
This year, volunteers are not counting anyone who is staying with friends or family, or doubled up with another family, for more than 14 days.
“It’s a pretty radical change,” said Bill Watt, executive director of Atascadero’s El Camino Homeless Organization shelter.
He said families who are doubling and tripling up in housing are becoming the “invisible homeless” — the people who are “holding on by their fingertips to stay out of the shelters.”
Children were not counted Wednesday; they will be tallied by school districts.
ECHO headed the North County count, while the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County organized the San Luis Obispo, North Coast and South County tallies.
The county also contracted with Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research to help.
Next week, volunteers will once again canvass the county to talk one-on-one with homeless people for deeper information about their situations.
Using homeless people as guides — and their knowledge of camps — was also a special focus in the count.
On Wednesday, volunteers passed out maps to assign specific regions to count. Atascadero volunteer Antoinette Goins searched apartment carports and neighborhoods.
“I’ve got to check every street, every nook and cranny,” she said as she worked.
Before Wednesday’s census, groups also spent a few hours counting people living in motels with vouchers, shelters and transitional housing so they wouldn’t be counted again on the street.
In Atascadero, ECHO organized 16 teams at the shelter on Atascadero Avenue before fanning out into 16 zones. At the same time in Paso Robles, nine teams organized by The LINK nonprofit departed from the Pioneer Park area, sending teams into the Salinas River area, dense with vegetation, and throughout the city and nearby rural communities. Bush and Goins scouted the creek area, behind strip-mall Dumpsters and along Highway 101.
In the end, the groups tallied 96 people in Atascadero, none in Creston and Santa Margarita, and about 170 people in Paso Robles, Shandon, San Miguel and Templeton. Most of those were found in Paso Robles.
Volunteers also counted 49 people on the North Coast, including Cambria, Morro Bay and Los Osos.
“It was quite an experience,” Bush said of participating in the Atascadero count. “You just get a different perspective.”
Watt found using homeless people as guides to be invaluable.
“It was literally talking to people not as, ‘You’re homeless and I’m not,’ but, ‘Let’s work together.’ ”
San Luis Obispo
Jeremy Lewis, 39, easily navigated through the dark — trudging through the dew-dampened grass of a vacant field near the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter on Orcutt Road.
Lewis, homeless himself, knew where to look for those who might have sheltered there for the night.
A young couple, their heads barely visible beneath the blankets piled on top of their sleeping bags, slept soundly near a cluster of trees despite the cold. Another person was sleeping down the embankment closer to the creek.
Trash and other belongings were strewn along a creek bank. Clothing, hanging from trees, was left abandoned.
It was 6 a.m., and it was just the first stop of the day for the three-person team, which included Dee Torres, homeless services coordinator for Community Action Partnership, and Della Wagner, the homeless shelter manager.
They spent the next three hours searching for other homeless encampments on the southeast portion of the city near Broad Street. Twelve additional teams of volunteers searched the rest of the city.
Torres drove as Wagner and Lewis scanned the streets for anyone walking before pulling over to search creeks, parks, along railroad tracks and other areas off the beaten path.
Among their discoveries was a ramshackle tent made of cardboard and tarps carefully camouflaged along the railroad tracks behind the Marigold Shopping Center off Broad Street.
At Damon-Garcia Park, three people slept on the concrete in their sleeping bags.
More permanent campsites were also scattered in brush, carefully hidden from anyone who might pass by.
Volunteers counted more than 420 homeless people on the streets throughout the city.
Five groups spread out from Avila Beach to Nipomo and drove down rural roads, searched creek beds, parks and Price Canyon, and stopped by People’s Kitchen in Grover Beach.
In all, volunteers counted about 416 people.
Separate groups in the South County went out between midnight and 3 a.m. Wednesday to count the number of vehicles and RVs parked overnigh. They spotted 72.
Later Wednesday morning, Larry Feldt drove slowly through the Vons parking lot in Grover Beach, scanning the businesses and benches. He spotted an American flag attached to a bicycle trailer and took a hard left toward the front of the parking lot.
Feldt, who supervises South County case management for CAPSLO, spotted a man sitting near the bike.
“Count him,” he instructed Laurie Morgan of the South County Services Affirming Family Empowerment (S.A.F.E.) Family Resource Center, who was tallying the number of homeless people spotted in Grover Beach.
Also along for the ride was 70-year-old Richard Howell, who was homeless for about four months before he received Section 8 housing assistance. Howell said the number of homeless people he sees in the South County has jumped; he attributes the increase to the economy.
“I used to go to people’s homes to visit,” he said. “I don’t know that many people with homes anymore.”
For four hours, the trio drove around Grover Beach, through shopping centers, around Ramona Garden Park and through the Pismo State Beach parking lot. They hiked into the Pismo Lake area off Fourth Street and stopped by a clinic that serves the homeless.
Four other groups canvassed Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, Oceano and Pismo Beach.
John Hamblen, whose group drove through Arroyo Grande, said he counted homeless people camped near Lopez Lake, behind local businesses and along Arroyo Grande Creek.
Hamblen, a 52-year-old homeless man who splits his time between Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo, has also noticed an increase in the number of homeless people, especially families. He attributed the rise to “economic duress.”
“Now there’s no loyalty or longevity in jobs, and that’s led to instability,” he added.