San Mateo County conducts biennial homeless count

Volunteer Navjeet Singh, a San Mateo County Human Services Agency manager, marks down the license plate number of an RV on the border of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park during the biennial point-in-time count of individuals experiencing homelessness on Jan. 31. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.)

More than 300 volunteers across San Mateo County woke up well before dawn on Thursday, Jan. 31, to take part in the county's biennial one-day homeless count.

A segment of those volunteers reported at 5 a.m. to a clinic space at the Ravenswood Family Health Center on Bay Road in East Palo Alto. They were greeted with coffee and snacks, paired into teams, and handed a census tract to cover. (There are 160 census tracts in the county, according to county spokesperson Michelle Durand.)

Their instructions: To pass through each street in the census tract, either on foot or by car; keep an eye out for homeless people, whether unsheltered or in cars or RVs; and, for the first time, to record their findings in a mobile app. Volunteers were instructed not to wake anyone, but if they did find someone awake who was willing to talk, they were permitted to administer a survey through the app.

Volunteers in Menlo Park included three members of the Menlo Park Housing Commission -- Nevada Merriman, Michele Tate and Wendy McPherson -- as well as Bruce Ives, CEO of Menlo Park-based homeless services nonprofit LifeMoves.

The Almanac shadowed Merriman and her partner for the assignment, Navjeet Singh, economic self-sufficiency manager at the San Mateo County Human Services Agency, who were assigned an area in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. Singh drove while Merriman entered observations into the mobile app, called "Connecting Us." They periodically stopped to walk in areas that were difficult to access by car and seemed like places where people experiencing homelessness might seek shelter – for example, by a creek or under a bridge.

The data collected is used to shape the county's homelessness policies.

"This effort provides a point-in-time snapshot of people experiencing homelessness," Durand said in a press statement. "Data is compared with historical counts to show trends over time and the count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development."

In the statement, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Carole Groom said, “Knowing who is at risk or currently experiencing homelessness helps us better strategize solutions."

New County Manager Mike Callagy added, "Each set of homeless circumstances are as unique as the individuals and families experiencing it. Meeting these members of our community in person and really understanding their needs helps County staff, our partners and our Board make better-informed decisions on how to best provide a safety net."

Merriman is also director of housing development at MidPen Housing Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. Earlier in her career, she said, she used statistics collected from a prior one-day homeless count to describe to community members the need for an affordable housing development she was working on in Sunnyvale.

In 2017, 1,253 homeless people were counted as having spent the night of Jan. 26 on the streets, in vehicles, or in the county’s emergency shelters, a 16 percent decrease in overall homelessness from 2015 observations. However, the number of homeless living in vehicles and RVs rose in 2017 by 25 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Preliminary results from the count will be processed, analyzed and submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The final report is expected to be released in June.


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