Number of homeless in Merced questioned

Survey results in doubt

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 26, 2013 

JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH/jsmith@mercedsunstar.com Brian Pitt, a homeless man originally from Seattle, Timothy Smith, homeless, from New Orleans, and David Refuerzo, homeless veteran, chat outside Catholic Charities in downtown Merced Friday. (1-25-13).

— For the second year in a row, officials with the Merced County Homeless Count and Survey have questioned the validity of numbers reported by volunteers.

Volunteer counters with the annual effort reported on Wednesday that central Merced -- the area with the county's highest level of vagrancy -- had 191 homeless people.

Local officials said they wanted to "double check" the area numbers, and have scheduled a recount for Monday. Central Merced is generally considered the region encompassed by Bear Creek, G, R and 13th streets.

"The numbers are not jiving with previous years," said Lori Flanders, spokeswoman with the Merced County Association of Governments. "So we're not sure if they went out of their boundaries."

Last year's official number of homeless people in central Merced was 52, according to association data.

However, officials said, volunteers reported a preliminary number of 269 homeless people in central Merced -- and that figure was adjusted down to an official number of 52 after a recount.

It's not clear why the preliminary and official numbers were so dramatically different, Flanders said. "We've been trying to determine that."

Former Merced Councilman John Carlisle, one of two volunteers assigned to central Merced over recent years, accused association officials of being "disingenuous" in their recount. "I think it's a shame that they manipulated the number for whatever their own proposes are," he said.

Doctoring numbers?

Earlier this week, Carlisle denied a request from the association to recount the area, saying he stands by his original count.

"I think one of the reasons we came up with the high numbers this year is that the weather was great," he added. "A lot of people that would usually be holed up were walking around and who knows what the weather's going to be like on Monday."

Flanders denied that the association was doctoring the numbers.

"Our ultimate goal is to have an accurate picture in Merced County," she said. "The last thing we care about is what (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) wants to see or what elected officials want to see."

The homeless count is required for local homeless programs to qualify for HUD funding. Homeless service providers have received more than $2.5 million in funding since 2004, according to the association officials.

If the number turns out to be as high as volunteers have suggested, central Merced should receive significantly more attention from service providers, Flanders said.

"If it is an accurate count, we need to make sure we have a flood of services coming into that area," she said. "It may not even be on the radar of most of our service providers."

Opinions from residents varied on the size of the homeless population downtown. But many people agreed the problem is significant.

"I have friends that just became homeless," said Daniel Kimbro, a Merced native living in central Merced. "The economy sucks. Some people are lucky, some ain't. We're actually one house payment away from being homeless."

He believes there's more than 191 homeless people in central Merced. "Yeah, recount because it's way too low," he added.

At the same time, Kimbro's friend Chris Kilkeary said he thought the homeless population hadn't fluctuated very much over the years. "I think it's about the same," he said.

Lawrence Ornelas, who works at his family's jewelry store downtown, said he thought the homeless population had recently dropped.

"It's not too bad," said the Merced native. "Now that Merced Police Department comes down here and does a quick little sweep, it's not too bad. It's decreased that I've seen."

The homeless population downtown is "increasing," according to retired welder Gabriel Rojas.

"You get a lot of outside people now," Rojas said. "I talk to them, find out where they're from. It doesn't bother me. You never know, one day it might happen to me."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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