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Getting out the Count 

Volunteers work to survey the local homeless population

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Photo by Iridian Casarez

Offering hot chili and coffee with a friendly smile, Jennifer Solis sat at a table in the Applebee's parking lot surveying Eureka's homeless population as part of the biennial Point in Time Count. With a soft voice, she began inquiring about their demographics, substance abuse issues, mental health and where they had slept the night before.

The Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition held its biennial Point in Time count Jan. 23, part of a nationwide effort to calculate the number of unsheltered and sheltered homeless people in each county as a federal requirement of the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development. The data is then used to apply for federal grants, which are awarded based in part on total homeless populations and densities.

In 2017, Humboldt County received $2.5 million in grants, which were then distributed to local agencies and services to address homelessness. This year, the state will be distributing $500 million, said Robert Ward, an administrative analyst with the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and the coordinator of this year's Point in Time count.

The last count — in 2017 — found 668 people experiencing homelessness in Humboldt County, a 45-percent decline from the 1,180 people counted in 2015. The 2017 numbers — which saw zero homeless people counted in Garberville — were widely discredited and illustrate that the count's accuracy is dependent on the number of volunteers recruited to help with the effort. More than 100 people helped with the count in 2015, while only about 80 volunteered two years later. Ward and others recruited about 150 to help this year, hoping to get a fuller count than in 2017.

Instead of walking around finding people to survey, volunteers from the Jefferson Community Center — the abandoned school-turned-neighborhood-center on Eureka's west side that's run by the Westside Community Improvement Association — decided to set up picnic tables next to an encampment on private property between the Bayshore Mall and Applebee's in an effort to get people to come to them. Accompanied by other volunteers from the center, Solis began serving chili, cornbread, coffee and granola bars, and giving surveys at 7 a.m.

"There's something about breaking bread where you're sitting down and talking to someone that makes it personal," said Heidi Benzonelli, a volunteer and president of the Westside Community Improvement Association. "It makes a difference."

Benzonelli circled the tables, making sure everyone had grabbed a bowl of chili and a cup of coffee, before she sat down to offer a survey. As she asked people questions, she started having a conversation, nodding her head and smiling as people spoke.

"I know the encampment," Benzonelli said teary-eyed. "There are people down here who could really use the help and connection to available resources. There are seniors who are completely dependent on others. There's a huge disconnect between the homeless population and the community and a real lack of understanding of what the homeless need."

Benzonelli and Mark Weller, chair of the Humboldt Network of Family Resource Center and deputy director of the Jefferson Community Center, said they began counting at 3 a.m., starting to the south of the Bayshore Mall and working north to the Wharfinger Building. Between 3 and 6 a.m., they counted 23 cars inhabited by homeless people.

Weller said he mostly did the observational part of the count, explaining that he and Benzonelli drove slowly, looking for cars that had signs of people living in them. But giving people the survey, he said, made him uncomfortable.

"It felt really invasive," Weller said. "There were very personal questions that asked about substance abuse and mental illness. I didn't want to interrupt anyone's day. I wish we could build more trust and clarity on why we're here and counting."

The methodology of this year's count differed from previous years. There are two ways to complete the Point in Time count in accordance with HUD's guidelines: the survey-based method and the blitz method. While the survey method, which Humboldt County has employed in the past, consists solely of the survey without a mechanism for counting people who decline to participate, the "blitz method" allows volunteers to count homeless individuals they see but who don't want to or can't be surveyed, guessing their age, gender, ethnicity and race. If volunteers encounter a makeshift shelter — a vehicle or a tent — they are also trained to make an "observational calculation" of how many people are inside.

This year, volunteers also used an app, Counting Us, to both administer the survey and count those not participating. Ward said the blitz method is more comprehensive and should result in a more accurate count.

Volunteers were sent to different zones in the county in an effort to ensure no one was counted twice.

Unlike the volunteers in the Applebee's parking lot, others came back to headquarters without having counted or surveyed anyone in their assigned zone. Ward blamed this in part on the weather and timing of the count. (The morning of Jan. 23 was a cloudy, frigid 39 degrees.)

"Humboldt County is at such a disadvantage," Ward said. "The count is scheduled in January, a time where it's cold and wet in Humboldt. [Homeless] people don't have anything holding them here, so they go down south where it's warmer. Our homeless population is much higher in August and September."

The count is set on a federal schedule, he said, with counties sending their data to HUD and then to Congress at the same time. Counties can request a one- or two-month extension, but nothing long enough to postpone the count to summertime.

Henry Solares and Krista Austin were assigned to Zone One, which included the half of the Waterfront Trail that extends from West Avenue to the Indianola Cutoff. They only counted six people and weren't able to survey anyone.

"The only people we counted were sleeping," Solares said. "In the training, we were advised not to wake anyone. I could imagine that once you wake up in this weather, it's hard to go back to sleep."

Solares said he and his group members found multiple uninhabited encampments that looked abandoned.

"If the count was at a different time of the year, there would probably be more people, at least in my opinion," he said.

Benzonelli, who said she had been working closely with the encampment by Applebee's from time to time, was able to head inside the camp with Weller and another volunteer, Bill Rodstrom, to observe and count anyone who didn't make it out to their table. Rodrstom said he thought people might be afraid to participate in the survey, worried the information would be used to kick them out of their encampments.

During the 2017 count, there were rumors orbiting around that the information would be used to put people in FEMA camps, said Christine Messinger, a spokesperson at DHHS, which may have contributed to the low population tallies.

On Jan. 24, the day after this year's count, the city of Eureka's Code Enforcement Division, Public Works Department, Police Department and employees of California Fish and Wildlife served a code enforcement warrant at the encampment Benzonelli had been surveying, which sits on a private property by the mall.

EPD Capt. Brian Stephens estimated that 45 people who had been living there were ordered to vacate the property, which Eureka Public Works Director Brian Gerving said had been on the city's radar as a potential hazard for almost a year.

It was merely coincidental that it came a day after the Point in Time count, he said.

"The condition of the property was degraded, there were municipal code violations, illegal structures and criminal activity that needed to be addressed," Gerving said. "The residents were displaced to resolve those violations."

Gerving added that the city had been waiting on a warrant from the court for a while. A judge signed the warrant Jan. 22, he said, and, based on city resources, the evacuation was set for Jan. 24, the day after the count. In a press release, EPD said that it specifically held off until after the count was complete.

But some worry the clearing of the encampment could be seen as related to — or even stemming from — the count, and worried it could break some of the trust volunteers tried to cultivate and have a chilling effect on participation in future counts.

Connie Beck, the director of DHHS, said her agency did not play a role in Eureka's decision to clear the encampment and was not consulted in the timing of the events.

"I have heard numerous concerns today of a possible connection between the Point in Time count (Jan. 23) and the decampments today, and I can tell you there was absolutely no connection on the part of DHHS," Beck said in a statement emailed to the Journal. "We have not provided any Point in Time data to anyone yet, including local law enforcement, because the findings have not been finalized. I hope today's evictions will not have a chilling effect on participation in future PIT counts. A full and accurate count is critically important for us to receive the funding we need to address homelessness in Humboldt County."

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. Contact her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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