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How many homeless people are there in SLO County? This survey aims to find out.

Here’s how SLO County counts its homeless population

San Luis Obispo County's Homeless Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey took place Jan. 30, 2017, to calculate the area's homeless population. Volunteers walked and drove around the county, recording any homeless individuals they saw.
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San Luis Obispo County's Homeless Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey took place Jan. 30, 2017, to calculate the area's homeless population. Volunteers walked and drove around the county, recording any homeless individuals they saw.

While most people were just beginning their morning routines Monday, about 75 volunteers were already out and about in the north and south counties, along the coast and in San Luis Obispo proper, counting every homeless person they saw for the San Luis Obispo County Homeless Point-in-Time Homeless Census and Survey.

The census records the local homeless population every two years to tally the number of people who are living on the streets and in cars, as well as gathering information on their backgrounds and the challenges they face in finding a home. The survey results are published later in the year and used for purposes such as determining funding for homeless services at the federal, state, county and city levels.

The count also reveals changes in where the highly transient population lives, based on changes in environment and local policies.

That was the case for at least one volunteer group scouring the Halcyon area of Arroyo Grande.

Last year we would have known where everybody was, but now they’ve gone God knows where.

Mike Byrd, 5 Cities Homeless Coalition

Mike Byrd, president of the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition board, and volunteer Tom Campbell repeatedly noticed Monday that the usual homeless encampments in dry creek beds were gone because rain had turned them into rushing rivers.

“Yeah, nobody could be staying down there right now,” Byrd said as he looked over a bridge at a stream swirling below. The area would normally have at least one or two campsites, he said, but recent storms had submerged many camping spots or made them inaccessible.

“In the past, this would have been the perfect spot, but now they’re just not here,” he said. “Last year we would have known where everybody was, but now they’ve gone God knows where.”

Byrd said some individuals may have temporarily relocated to the Oceano dunes, where water and storms tend to have less impact on campsites. He also noted that more people were using local shelters and warming centers because of the storms, rather than risking it out in the elements.

“Last year, we had plenty of people who just opted not to use the center because they could,” he said, noting that last winter, the homeless coalition’s average nightly attendance at its warming centers was about 15 people. This year, it’s closer to 42 people per night.

San Luis Obispo County Homeless Services coordinator Laurel Weir, who was in charge of the county’s census, said there was concern that it would be difficult to find homeless people displaced by the storms. Volunteers were urged to be extra vigilant during their searches. She said that opening shelters the night before the count and including those clients in the numbers should help provide an accurate census.

As they conducted their count Monday, Byrd and Campbell described some of the factors homeless people take into account when picking a good, low-visibility camping spot. At the top of the list, of course, is a dry area.

Today we find out how many are on the street. Starting tomorrow, we find out who they are.

Mike Byrd, 5 Cities Homeless Coalition

“See, this is too soggy and muddy,” Byrd said as he waded through spongy, moss-covered mud alongside a densely vegetated thicket of brambles.

A few miles away, he pointed to a particularly nasty patch of poison oak lining the hill: “Poison oak is not a good thing — most people aren’t going to be sleeping in it.”

Campbell, who speaks with the experience of someone who has been homeless, noted that campsites also tend to be picked for their proximity to stores that sell inexpensive food — which means finding a spot in a populated area where a person can still camp relatively unnoticed and be left alone.

The count is only one part of the biennial census. For the rest of the week, volunteers will once again fan out throughout the county, this time with the goal of talking with those homeless individuals to determine their age, race and a host of other characteristics to help understand the makeup of the highly transient population.

“Today we find out how many are on the street,” Byrd said. “Starting tomorrow, we find out who they are.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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