Carey Vasquez walks up a side trail in Atascadero’s Stadium Park and is met by a barefoot man carrying an ax.
“Morning, Jonathan,” Vasquez says and shakes the man’s hand. Jonathan, who wouldn’t give his last name, said that he, a woman and two dogs were camped out in the park. The ax was only used to chop wood, he said.
Vasquez and his survey partner, Tony Gagnina, take some basic information — including his gender, approximate age and where he spends the night — from the man and mark it on a clipboard.
Jonathan is one of more than 30 homeless people Vasquez and Gagnina talked to Monday morning as they systematically worked their way through Atascadero. They were volunteers with the county’s homeless survey conducted every other year by the Homeless Services Oversight Council. The previous count was done in January 2013.
About 20 miles south in San Luis Obispo, leaves crunched underfoot as Jeffrey, a San Luis Obispo resident, walked down a narrow path toward San Luis Obispo Creek near Higuera and Marsh streets.
Under a bridge crossing the creek, numerous pieces of cardboard boxes, clothing, a lawn chair and other items were strewn about. But no one was around.
“Around here, today is trash day, so they’re going through recycling bins, getting aluminum cans,” said Jeffrey, who asked that his last name not be used because of personal reasons.
The 49-year-old used to be homeless but now has transitional housing, sharing a San Luis Obispo apartment with three other guys.
He was one of numerous guides who helped with the count Monday. Ten teams left the Prado Day Center shortly after 6 a.m. to scour the San Luis Obispo area for homeless individuals and families.
Preliminary numbers were not released; the results of the countywide count will be available in a report later this year, said Peter Connery, vice president of Applied Survey Research, which organized the count.
In addition to the early-morning count, volunteers were scheduled to conduct a count of homeless youths later Monday. Also, a survey will be done later this winter to get to know more about the local homeless population.
Chelsea La Pierre, a homeless-services worker for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, accompanied Jeffrey to downtown San Luis Obispo. They counted more than 60 people in their specific area of the city.
The pair parked near Nipomo Street downtown and zigzagged around town, walking to the transit station on Osos Street, through Mission Plaza, and looking around areas with liquor stores and coffee shops.
“You’ve got a whole line in the back,” Jeffrey said, peering into Peet’s Coffee & Tea on Court Street, where a few people sat at separate tables. “You’ve got four.”
They also counted a few people sleeping in secluded spots along the creek or in a small park.
Later, La Pierre and Jeffrey drove to Mitchell Park and parked outside Grace Church — one of the sites occasionally used as an overflow shelter when the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter is full.
“It would be great to have everything under one roof,” La Pierre commented, referring to plans to build a new Homeless Services Center that would replace the Prado Day Center and the Maxine Lewis shelter. “We have some clients where it’s an overwhelming stress to go from one place to another.”
For the purposes of the count, the definition of homelessness is a person living in shelters and places not meant for human habitation. It excludes people who are living doubled up with others because of economic hardship or those living in RV or trailer parks.
Volunteers such as Vasquez and Gagnina in Atascadero are crucial to the homeless count because they are familiar with where the homeless congregate and spend the night and they know most of the homeless. Both men are recovering from drug addictions.
Vasquez, 30, is homeless himself. He lives out of his car and works as an auto detailer. Gagnina, 19, has been homeless on and off for the past two years. He currently lives in a condominium and works as a cement layer.
“If you do drugs and alcohol, you’ll be homeless,” Gagnina said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
They were accompanied by volunteer Susan Joslin of Atascadero. She said she was motivated to participate in the survey out of a sense of gratitude that she has never had to face a problem such as homelessness.
“The problem seems so overwhelming and hopeless,” she said. “This is one thing I can do.”
At one point, the survey team encountered a group of three homeless men on a street corner in downtown Atascadero. One of the men, Kenny Tanner, said he has been homeless for 10 years.
He camps out by the creek and spends his days looking for food and a place to sit. He spends three nights a week at a warming shelter at the Atascadero First Assembly church.
“Without them, I don’t know what I would do,” Tanner said.
Vasquez and Gagnina said they think this year’s survey in Atascadero could be much different than the previous one, with the homeless spread out more and in different areas. That’s because the city has taken steps to crack down on those who are homeless.
The city recently passed ordinances against overnight camping, dumpster diving and smoking in the Sunken Gardens.