It was cold enough to see your breath in the air when volunteers headed out just before dawn Wednesday morning to help count Contra Costa's homeless population. But it was even colder for 54-year-old Rory — who had slept the night unsheltered on the banks of the Contra Costa canal.
"I called the shelter, but they were full," he said, tucked into his sleeping bag amid a fort of cardboard boxes.
The 120 volunteers were bundled up in thick coats as they paired up two to a car, each with a map of an area to cover. They would drive around for two hours — stopping by bridges, tunnels, fields and back alleys to tally the number of homeless people sleeping outside and mark down their ages.
The biennial count organized by Contra Costa Health Services is a government requirement, according to Lavonna Martin, acting director of the homeless program. The figures are used to assess funding needs, said Martin, but also to determine the effectiveness of current homeless outreach programs and identify future needs. The count aims to cover the entire county and takes place in a single morning.
Volunteers fill out a brief tally chart for each person they encounter living "unsheltered," listing gender, age, the composition of family units and the type of encampment — including occupied vehicles as well as hand-built structures.
"There's an increased focus this year on transition-age youth," said Martin, explaining that the county has seen an increase in the number of 14-to-24-year-olds experiencing homelessness.
At a camp by Highway 4 in Concord, a middle-aged couple welcomed outreach workers into the "home" they have built under a bridge. The woman, who gave her name as Teresa, said that she lost her job in retail and has been homeless since October.
Thanks to her partner's disability income, the couple are not as hard up as most other homeless people, she said, and have been able to construct a relatively comfortable living space — complete with a "bedroom" inside a tent with a queen bed, a kitchen area with a stove, and a heater. She said that she doesn't fit the stereotype of what a homeless person looks and lives like, and that the government needs to see a distinction between those who are actively trying to get off the streets and those who "just want to sit around and do nothing."
The 2011 homeless count indentifed 1,490 "unsheltered" homeless people — down from 1,872 in 2009. Almost 70 percent were living in encampments. An additional 2,784 were classed as "sheltered" in emergency housing and other programs.