Census of Merced County's homeless shows slight rise in numbers

By Ameera Butt and Joshua Emerson Smith
The Merced Sun-Star
January 25, 2012 

James Tilghman smoked a cheap cigar Tuesday outside Merced's D Street Shelter, waiting with several others for the building to open.

A native Mercedian, he recycles cans and bottles to get by, but laments the uncomfortable stares he often receives from strangers.

"It's hard times for everybody right now," the 38-year-old said. "People get upset with you if you go into the garbage can and get stuff out of the garbage can. It's like they get offended."

Plus, he said, it's hard to find a job because employers look down on homeless men who don't have a job or dress well.

"There's a lot of people I know that's in the same situation I'm in just trying to make it day to day. It's tough," he said.

Tilghman is among the county's homeless, a demographic surveyed by several residents Tuesday in an effort to gauge the size of its population.

The group, Continuum of Care, counted about 280 people Tuesday in the communities of Merced, Atwater, Livingston and Los Banos. Continuum of Care is a group of government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based organizations that work to prevent and reduce homelessness.

There was one homeless person counted in Atwater, 14 in Livingston, 75 in Los Banos and 190 in Merced. Gustine, Dos Palos and the county's unincorporated areas weren't included in the numbers.

One area within the Merced city limits will be re-counted today because of duplication, said Lori Flanders, public information officer with the Merced County Association of Governments.

Last year, there were 277 homeless people counted in Merced, Los Banos and Livingston. That number was up from the 2010 count of 154, but that count didn't include Livingston.

Flanders said it wasn't mandatory to conduct the count this year, but the group does it every year. She said the group gets about $575,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

About 40 volunteers counted the homeless in the county Tuesday morning and will participate in one-on-one surveys with homeless people at various sites in the city Thursday. The surveys -- at the D Street Shelter, Rescue Mission and The Salvation Army -- will focus on the subpopulation of homeless and ask questions about their range of disabilities.

The counters included homeless advocates, the homeless and others. "They made it very easy for us and the group to identify the key locations. So I'd say it required more planning but wasn't necessarily harder," Flanders said in an email.

The group conducted a separate "sheltered" tally, which counted how many beds were occupied in homeless shelters Monday night. Flanders said it will take a few days to calculate final results.

Whatever the number of homeless in the city, a subcommittee made up of some members from Continuum of Care, led by Bruce Metcalf from the Rescue Mission, said the mission still has space for homeless people during the cold weather.

"So there is no reason for someone to be on the street -- they can come to us and we take them in," he said. The mission will have two 20-passenger buses in the parking lot with an outside bathroom. The buses will house 20 men and 20 women.

He said the committee had been looking at private and city buildings as a place for homeless to go to at night.

Beginning Feb. 1, the Gate to Hope Church, located on the first floor of the old Tioga Hotel, will make space available for as many as 80 homeless people a night, he said.

Mike Conway, spokesman for the city of Merced, said the city is supportive of Metcalf's project and is working with Continuum of Care to get a long-term solution.

"We have cold weather every year and it is something we need to be addressing now for next year," he said.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or abutt@mercedsunstar.com.

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