Editor’s note: BenitoLink was requested not to photograph camps or individuals during the event to preserve confidentiality.
Just after 6 a.m. on Jan. 27, a fleet of cars left the H.O.M.E. Resource Center in Hollister, fanning out across San Benito County in seven teams of about 15 county workers and volunteers. The groups were beginning the biannual job of counting the city’s homeless population as required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Each team had a map of their area and a tablet running a survey app that is used to catalog the locations where homeless people are camped or parked. Everyone attended an orientation the day before. The information gathered is minimal, and the teams did their work unobtrusively, counting the individuals and trying not to disturb them as they slept.
Group Three, led by Community Homeless Solutions Director of Programs Christina Soto, took the downtown Hollister area, starting near San Benito High School. They drove through areas where the homeless are known to gather. Some of the volunteers were, or are, homeless themselves and know the spots where people stay.
“We can tell where a lot of people are staying because you see garbage and other things,” Soto said. “But we also know there are certain areas of town, like by the railroad tracks, where people are living.”
Standing in a parking lot in the center of town, one man pointed out the cars in which people were living. He knew how many people were in each one, which cars are parked there permanently and which ones leave the lot each day, only to return at night.
At each stop, details were logged for each person or group. The sighting is registered as confirmed—actually seeing people—or suspected—such as a tent or vehicle that looks to be inhabited. The entry records whether it is an individual or a family, whether the person is living on the street, in a tent or abandoned building, or in a car, and whether they are part of an encampment. The gender and approximate age are also noted and the location is geotagged.
The information is then submitted to a central database, to be tabulated later in the day.
“It is important for us to know how many people we have who are homeless so we can provide services to them,” Soto said. “We are trying to help them out of homelessness. It is hard because some people don’t want help from us. But we do our best to be open and honest with them and hope to gain more of their trust.”
The first time Soto took part in one of the surveys in 2018, she located 141 people in her designated area. With the next survey, that number dropped to less than 40 following police sweeps of the encampments.
The current results have not been compiled yet, but Soto did offer approximate numbers for three of the seven areas.
“Down in the river area, they found close to 90 individuals,” she said. “There were about 60 counted in another section on the other side of the river encampment. Including the area I surveyed, there were about 200 people total in those three sections.”
The results of this year’s survey will not be compiled until a second survey, which has not yet been scheduled, is completed, involving a sample of around 150 homeless people who will be asked various demographic questions. The information and population totals will then be summarized and sent to the HUD.
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