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Fewer homeless people counted in SLO County — but did rain skew the results?

San Luis Obispo County officials counted fewer homeless individuals in 2017 than during the last survey two years ago, although heavy rains that prompted some to seek shelter may have contributed to the decline.

The county on Friday released the results of its biennial homeless survey, also known as the Point-in-Time Count, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and was conducted throughout the region on Jan. 30.

About 54 volunteers and 36 individuals who had experienced homelessness canvassed the county, searching for people living in shelters, on the streets, in encampments and in cars, among other places.

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A sign found near a homeless camp in Arroyo Grande seen in January during the Homeless Services Oversight Council's biennial Point-In-Time Homeless Count and Survey to determine the number of homeless individuals living in the county. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The 2017 census showed a 26 percent overall decline from the last count in 2015. Volunteers made contact with 1,125 people, compared to 1,515 in 2015. Thirty-one percent of those individuals were living in an emergency shelter or transitional housing, while 69 percent were not.

The North County, North Coast and San Luis Obispo all saw declines in their homeless populations, while the South County saw a 40 percent uptick, probably because the region’s population was undercounted last time, according to Laurel Weir, the county’s homeless services coordinator.

The North County’s homeless population was down 60 percent, the North Coast’s population was down 30 percent and San Luis Obispo’s population was down 15 percent.

Volunteers also found fewer homeless veterans and families. The survey noted 81 homeless veterans in 2017, down 38 percent from 2015. Forty-nine homeless families with children were counted in 2017, down 56 percent from 2015.

This year’s heavy winter rains likely reduced the number of people out on the streets, especially in the North County, Weir said.

“I think that section was undercounted,” she said. “The rain impacted North County a little more than other locations.”

Many homeless individuals living in that region take shelter around river and creek areas, which flooded with rainwater, she said. People who might ordinarily be found living there may have found shelter with friends or in hotels, where they couldn’t be counted, Weir said.

Law enforcement also continually swept river and creek areas to ensure public safety during the heavy rain, she said: “There were efforts to try and get people out of harm’s way.”

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Volunteers gather at Saint John's Lutheran Church in Arroyo Grande in January for instructions before heading out for the biennial Point-In-Time Homeless Count and Survey to determine the number of homeless individuals living in the county. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Although officials don’t share homeless survey information with law enforcement, this perception may have inhibited the North County count, Weir said.

Families with children are also undercounted during rainy weather, as they’re more likely to find sympathetic friends with whom to share space, she said.

In addition, the CalWORKs Housing Support Program, a state program that helps homeless families find permanent housing, may have also contributed to that population’s decline, Weir said. The program has housed 238 families since January 2015, she said.

The county’s homeless survey has been criticized for no longer using data from school districts to count homeless families. Weir said the county discontinued this practice in 2015 because the schools collect data differently and families were sometimes being counted twice — once on the street or in shelters and once through information from the schools.

Weir also said she was encouraged to see a decline in the number of homeless veterans, which she attributed to an increase in housing support, such as vouchers individuals can use to help pay their rent.

“If you have enough housing, you can actually bring those numbers down,” she said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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