Cambrian: Opinion

Survey helps paint picture of Cambria homelessness

Diane Brooke
Diane Brooke

The cardboard sign a woman was holding outside a discount store read, “Please help me and my three children.”

I opened my window to pass a few dollars to the young man next to her who appeared to be her son. I turned onto the main drag and, two blocks later, I noticed a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche pulling into the drive-through Starbucks. Crazy world.

I just had the opportunity to be a part of the San Luis Obispo County Point-In-Time Homeless Census & Survey here in Cambria.

The SLO County Board of Supervisors charges the Homeless Services Oversight Council to conduct this enumeration every two years so it may report to the government on whether numbers are increasing or decreasing; if singles or families are suffering more or getting better; track the chronically ill, etc. Also of great concern here in SLO County are veterans on the street. One of the main goals is to get them shelter.

Funding for housing based on these stats comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a program called 50 Now Housing (Only 50 units available for setting up a home), among other places. Volunteers such as myself and my friend Bambi Fields and staff of the Department of Social Services like her son, Rick Johnson, participated in the survey.

The project also receives help from El Camino Homeless Organization, 5 Cites Homeless Coalition, CAPSLO (the Community Action Partnership of SLO County) and Transitions-Mental Health Association.

The questions we asked were very broad, very personal and somewhat repetitive; asking the same thing in different ways that the folks who process the information have checks and balances of some sort to validate the information gathered. Questions about vulnerability and functionality include things like: “Do you feel you are ever taken advantage of?” “Do you ever fear for your life?” “Are you homeless due to violence, substance abuse, physical abuse?” “Are you able to take care of your personal hygiene needs.” Such questions help determine what resources are most — or least — available. People were incredibly forthright. I was honored to listen.

The hope was to conduct at least 300 surveys countywide. Each team member had an app downloaded onto his or her phone to register names, signatures confirming they understood the confidentiality of the survey, Social Security numbers (for potential help, but it also lost us one person we were trying to talk to — understandably!) and all the questions as well as surveyor observations. Info would be transmitted real time. We were also directed to immediately call the survey leader in the event we spoke with any veterans on the streets. I did. I hope it helped.

Several interesting things occurred: I received numerous calls asking whether I was going to help move homeless out of specific neighborhoods; I had conversations about potential activities of said homeless; I realized that many of these folks moved to drier areas but also simply vanished for fear of being “hassled” or losing the security of their camping spots.

Four people we were able to speak with in the time we were allotted had very interesting stories. We were sorry we only had so much time and could only offer warm socks and a bag of toiletries, snacks, apples and canned goods.

Thinking we’d failed for only reaching four people, we found out the Morro Bay team only reached five, and I haven’t heard how it went in the rest of the county.

There is quite a network that goes up around this population. Some folks said they were threatened for leading anyone to their encampments; people, including “unaccompanied youth” (runaways and throwaways) are hiding from the law or society; there are a lot of reasons. And, some folks don’t want the help. Pride, inability to reason …

There is a lot of distrust out there. I understand that. Their things get stolen. They get rousted. They are unable to hold a job but unable to qualify for assistance. Mental health. Abuse. Substance abuse. Injury. Bad luck. It’s all out there. I hope our meager efforts to listen to them, to hear their needs (mostly for shelter), brings more services to those who need and want them.

Overall numbers of homeless, by the way, have dropped a little since 2013.

To read the 2015 survey results and, soon, the 2017 results, go to which also includes a copy of the questions asked in the survey.

The Homeless Services Oversight Council (HSOC) is at Also on that site is a Community Resource Card, with services provided in the county for homeless people or others in need. Perhaps you can run off some copies of this list to keep with you to help someone or to give to others.

Dianne Brooke’s column appears weekly and is special to The Cambrian. Visit her website at Email her at