A homeless man sits at his encampment in Contra Costa County, where volunteers warned of a rainstorm that could flood the canal under the overpass where he was situated.  Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED
A homeless man sits at his encampment in Contra Costa County, where volunteers warned of a rainstorm that could flood the canal under the overpass where he was situated.  (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

The Faces Behind Contra Costa's Annual Homeless Count

The Faces Behind Contra Costa's Annual Homeless Count

The last time it rained, Jarrett Keesling watched from under a bridge as the canal in front of his tent encampment rose past the pillars that held up a small overpass.

"I tend to hunker us down," said Keesling, who's 30 and lives in a tent with his dog, Douja, and his friend, Kelly Lengele. "I'm pretty good at MacGyvering us a shelter. When this thing floods, I sit right here and watch it."

But they often have to move. And the last time they did, they lost a bunch of clothes. Keesling says the clothes were picked up by the county and that these were items they could have used to keep warm.IMG_0170

"I used to stay at a shelter but, yeah, my dog. That's my kid," said Keesling.

Frequently, those seeking shelter are not allowed to take their pets with them. So Keesling chooses to stay outside.

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"I used to keep her in the van while I stayed in the shelter and I was up all night, periodically checking on her. I felt bad. Guilty. My dog should be sleeping in my bed with me."

Federally Mandated Count

Keesling is one of many faces behind Contra Costa's annual Point in Time homelessness count. Every year for the past 11 years, the county has sent volunteers to canvass encampments as part of a national federally mandated count conducted by all counties that receive federal funding for homeless services.

"We have an extremely tight housing market. And it will be interesting to see how our housing market has impacted our numbers over the last year," said Lavonna Martin, chief of homeless services for Contra Costa County.

But behind the numbers are people with stories. Here are a few.

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Keesling has been homeless on and off since he was 14. He met Lengele when he was a teenager.

"I was a typical teen, picking fights with the older guys," said Keesling. "Kelly was the one who'd stop it."

Keesling considers her to be his best friend, "and then some." But when they first got together, they were in disagreement about the other female in his life: his dog.

"I was like, 'Dude, the dog sleeps in the bed, I'm sorry. She is my foot warmer,' " he said. "Now she gets it and is like, 'OK, warm feet.' "

Keesling said that it was Lengele who saved him from a rough and abusive relationship. When he said that, Lengele chimed in from the back. "You saved yourself," she said.

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Things Fell Apart in 2012

T'enha Brown has been homeless since March 15, 2012. That was the year she lost her father, godfather and boyfriend.

"And then life changed," she said. "I had to figure it out because I don't know how to do homelessness. I've always been sheltered and comfortable and housed. I've never been this kind of homeless."

After that, she lived under bridges with friends. She called it "hell's kitchen," and a place that became "dangerously comfortable".

"Each day is a different test," she said.

But Brown said she's grateful for the challenges. They shaped her, she said. Her most recent challenge involved the house she was supposed to move into a few weeks ago. There have been a lot of delays, but she shrugs them off. As far as she's concerned, she said, she's already been through hellfire.

"There's a glitch in the matrix. It's minor. Minuscule. God got it. I ain't worried about it," said Brown.

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Moving to a Boat

Matthew Mannering was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. He's been at the Adult Homeless Shelter in Concord for about four months.

"I don't require a whole lot. I just want a place where I can be secure, safe and happy," said Mannering.

He became homeless after he couldn't find an affordable place that would take him and his dogs.  But being at the shelter gave him some time to save up enough money to buy a boat. It's not ready, he said, and it needs a lot of work. But he said he'll sleep on the floor if he has to. It's the first time in a long time that he's had a place to call his own. He'll be moving in this month.

"I'd rather sit in a room with my dogs on my lap and a cup of coffee watching the water go by. To me, that's good living," he said.

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Clean for nine months

Nicole Williams, 43, has been homeless for more than five years.

She was in an abusive relationship and was addicted to drugs. But once she was diagnosed with cancer, she knew she had to turn her life around.

"I knew I needed help," said Williams, who was living on the streets at the time. And if she wasn't on the streets, she said, she was in jail.

Williams, who has eight children and seven grandchildren, met her husband at the Adult Homeless Shelter in Concord. She receives treatment for her cancer regularly, and has been clean for nine months now.

"I've got everything from here," she said.

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