Early on the morning of Jan. 27, several dozen San Mateo residents gathered in a room at to receive their instructions. They would be striking out that morning, in cars and on foot, to conduct a census count of homeless people all over the city.
The volunteers broke off into smaller groups and were given maps, clipboards and a coverage area. Many also had flashlights, as the sun hadn’t risen yet.
That morning, the group – acting on behalf of the San Mateo County Human Services Agency’s Center on Homelessness – counted dozens of homeless encampments throughout the city. The makeshift shelters were found alongside creek beds, beneath freeway overpasses, behind corporate office structures – anywhere people thought they could pitch a tent or park a vehicle without being bothered.
That effort was “only one part of the census” for this year, explained agency spokesperson Amanda Kim at the time of the count.
“Until we get the other pieces, such as the shelter count and the results from the qualitative survey, we won't know how many people are living in vehicles, encampments, shelters and in the areas where we can't count, such as private property.”
Several months later, the agency has put together those missing pieces, releasing San Mateo County’s latest Homeless Census and Survey. Among other things, the reports finds that homeless numbers have risen 17 percent since 2009 – up from 1,796 to 2,150.
In San Mateo proper, a total of 331 homeless people were counted this year, or 15 percent of the total homeless found throughout the county.
The survey breaks down the numbers further, with the intention of identifying homeless individuals and families and understanding their current situation as a means to ending their homelessness.
For example, of the 331 individuals found homeless this year in San Mateo, 261 had temporary shelter and 68 were found to be unsheltered – living on the street or in a vehicle or encampment. It is in the latter grouping that the county saw dramatic increases: Volunteers counted 84 cars, 40 vans or RVs, and 151 encampments countywide, an 83 percent increase since 2009.
“Almost all of them want to work, but they don’t have the money, clothes or home to get started,” said county Supervisor Don Horsley. He and Board of Supervisors President Carole Groom are the chairs of Housing Our People Effectively, or HOPE, an interagency council that combines the efforts of many housing nonprofits.Number of San Mateo County Homeless People by City
City Sheltered Unsheltered Total Redwood City 269 233 501 East Palo Alto 46 385 431 San Mateo 261 68 331 Menlo Park 168 72 240 South San Francisco 91 122 211 Scattered Site Programs 103 0 105 Pacifica 0 95 95 Daly City 38 44 82 Unincorporated 0 47 47 Half Moon Bay 0 41 41 San Bruno 6 14 20 Portola Valley 0 16 16 Airport 0 9 9 San Carlos 0 9 9 Brisbane 5 0 5 Burlingame 0 3 3 Ahterton 0 1 1 Belmont 0 1 1 Colma 0 1 1 Millbrae 0 1 1 Foster City 0 0 0 Hillsborough 0 0 0 Woodside 0 0 0 TOTAL 987 1,162 2,150
According to Wendy Goldberg, coordinator of the Center on Homelessness, the typical homeless person in San Mateo County is an unsheltered single white male with at least one disability; 56 percent suffer from alcohol or other drug-related problems and 43 percent have chronic health problems. He is unemployed, and his primary barriers to employment are a lack of an address and the disability
Furthermore, 12 percent are veterans of war; and 46 percent are considered "chronically" homeless, meaning they are disabled and have been homeless for longer than 12 months or for at least four times in the past three years.
Unlike the US Census, which sends neatly packaged forms to your doorstep, counting the homeless is an entirely more complex process.
The San Mateo volunteers on that late January morning were joined by 217 others countywide. Along with county officials, they combed every street in San Mateo County to conduct their census. The one-day snapshot was used to estimate a larger annual number of 6,737 people who will at one point be homeless this year.
Because the homeless are transient, their home city is marked as the one in which their shelter or bedding is located. However, because many live on private property like storage sheds or garages, it is difficult to explicitly identify whether people are living in a certain location, Goldberg said. There are also many people who temporarily reside in friends’ or family’s homes.
Despite the increase in homelessness, Goldberg said there was a decrease in chronically homeless people. The number of those living on the street has gone down, and the census counters only identified two homeless families living on the streets.
Supervisors Groom and Horsley started the HOPE interagency council to combine the efforts of numerous housing organizations that work to help house the homeless.
“Housing, housing, housing,” Goldberg says. The supervisors agree that the primary way to end homelessness is to provide a variety of affordable housing options.
HOPE and its partner organizations work to see that veterans and disabled residents are receiving the benefits they’re entitled to. Of the disabled, only 13 percent were receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and only 14 percent were receiving Medi-Cal or Medicare.
“I think progress is being made all over the place,” Groom told Patch on the morning of the census count in San Mateo.
As one focus, “We want to end homelessness amongst veterans in the next five years,” Horsley said more recently.
Organizers said that HOPE works intensely with nonprofits whose clients have very high levels of homelessness, or are chronically homeless, by working with alcohol and drug treatment and the criminal justice system. It is also working closely with HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Every year, the county receives approximately $5.7 million from the federal government to address homeless issues, Goldberg said. The total amount the county spends annually could not be immediately determined because multiple departments like Human Services, Mental Health and Veterans Affairs all contribute to homeless services.
Groom called attention to projects like the in San Mateo that allots units for homeless people.
“It helps people like Michelle, who was living in the parking lot of ,” Groom said. “At first she was absolutely petrified because she had never had a room before and hadn’t bathed in a real bathroom in years. It took good old-fashioned social work to help her.”
“These people are our citizens,” Horsley said. “They are longtime residents of the county, and we want to assist them.”