Hidden in Plain View: Santa Clara County Counts Homeless

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Social workers Jen Sandhu and Pauline Bayati of HomeFirst, a nonprofit that helps homeless people in Santa Clara County. They volunteered to help count the homeless in San Jose. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the teams receive their marching orders at CityTeam in the Berryessa neighborhood of San Jose.

"Alum Rock!" calls out a representative with Applied Survey Research, the  San Jose nonprofit that's coordinating this "Point-in-Time" homeless census for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Up step social workers Jen Sandhu and Pauline Bayati of HomeFirst, a nonprofit that helps homeless people in Santa Clara County. They're teamed up with Nick, a formerly homeless guide, before they set off for Alum Rock and Eastside San Jose.

You might imagine they'll travel by foot, but the trip is mostly by car, slowly cruising down individual streets, looking for what can be spotted without disturbing people living rough.

On the back side of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, we spot the first encampment.

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"Right there," says Nick, pointing at a clutch of sleeping bags and tents huddled against a fence at the end of a cul-de-sac. A neighborhood cat prowls around as the folks inside sleep.

"Oh, wow," says Sandhu, counting "one, two, three, four, five, six tents."

Nick says many homeless people choose to stay near places where food is distributed or other services are provided. Shelters report their numbers to HUD independent of this street survey. While it's possible this team will double-count some people, the hope is the early hour means there won't be redundancy.

Where you see a shopping cart packed with possessions, there's probably a homeless person nearby, and probably an encampment. Behind this cart, back in the bushes, there are signs somebody is living in the greenery by a freeway off-ramp.
Where you see a shopping cart packed with possessions, there's probably a homeless person nearby, and probably an encampment. Behind this cart, back in the bushes, there are signs somebody is living in the greenery by a freeway offramp. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Nick points out the telltale signs: holes cut into fences, makeshift sheds, shopping carts packed with possessions. We see quite a few alongside freeway on- and offramps. As cars roar past, we tiptoe past the carts to the bushes that grow along the concrete walls. Sure enough, there are sofas and sleeping bags, as well as cleared spots that indicate someone was sleeping on the ground recently.

"It just gives you a new perspective for who’s around you and who’s part of your community," says Sandhu.

Away from obvious encampments, it proves remarkably hard to identify people who are homeless, other than those deep into addiction and/or mental illness. A disheveled woman on the street in her housecoat and slippers attracts our attention, until she walks up and into a house. There's no way to know a kid wearing a worn hoodie or carrying a backpack too big for him is homeless just because of that.

Nick grew up in the Alum Rock area. Family troubles and alcoholism led him to the streets, but he's housed now, working with a local group called Downtown Streets Team. He's also an excellent guide for a homeless survey.
Nick grew up in the Alum Rock area. Family troubles and alcoholism led him to the streets, but he's housed now, working with a local group called Downtown Streets Team. He's also an excellent guide for a homeless survey. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The counters don't try to engage the people they see on the street. There's concern about safety, and an awareness that concern cuts both ways.  A homeless person may not trust a stranger to have his best interests at heart. Many of those living on the streets are easy targets for robbery and rape.

Robert Aguirre, who used to live in the Jungle -- a massive homeless camp dismantled in December -- has another concern: that San Jose city officials are using intelligence they gather to evict people from encampments, like they did at the Jungle, Aguirre says. "Since they closed the Jungle, all those people scattered, and now every time they settle down somewhere, the city goes and finds where they are. They clear them out."

The two-day survey, which continues Wednesday, doesn't track specific locations. Only the counters would know exactly where they spotted an encampment, and that's not to say they would share that information with police. That said, local agencies and nonprofits are using information they gather.

As in other counties, Santa Clara County will send out teams after this count is over to meet and talk with people, gather more information about who they are and what they need, and potentially hook them up with services.

Santa Clara Supervisor and Board President Dave Cortese called for a new task force to address the problem in his State of the County speech Tuesday night. "In a valley among the highest in per capita income, productivity and wealth in the world, it is unthinkable that homelessness is one of our largest challenges."

In 2013, the count found more than 7,631 homeless people in Santa Clara County, two-thirds of them in San Jose. HUD will release the official results for 2015 in May.

These maps of San Jose give a sense of how detailed and extensive the survey is.
These maps of San Jose give a sense of how detailed and extensive the homeless survey is. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The numbers are shocking, but not the reasons people become homeless. Bayati, who studied psychology at San Jose State, says:  "A lot of it is mental illness or drug abuse."  There are also unstable families, as well as work that doesn’t pay enough to cover rent. And even though there are programs like Section 8, Bayati says a one-bedroom apartment in a rough part of San Jose can run $1,700 a month or more.  All this explains the count.

Sandhu says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the survey every two years to figure out where to spend its money. "Using an actual head count and having statistically figured multipliers to assess the issue is much better than an educated guess."

This year’s census won’t include everybody. Counters invariably miss people on the streets, especially those living in cars and RVs. It’s also impossible to count the people living on the edge in somebody else’s home, staying indoors thanks to the kindness of friends or family.