Numbers in homeless count disputed

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 30, 2013 

— Volunteers working with the annual Merced County Homeless Count and Survey recently clashed with officials over the number of people reported to be sleeping on city streets.

It's key data that helps drive the distribution of resources and efforts of service providers.

The Merced County Association of Governments officials who organized the homeless count announced Tuesday that, after a recount, an initial report from volunteers of 191 homeless people in central Merced has been revised down to 38.

The number volunteers reported "seems implausible," said MCAG spokeswoman Lori Flanders. "We also talked to the providers that are on the streets every day, and they've never seen that many on the streets in that area."

The revised number is "ridiculous," said Renee Davenport, one of two volunteers who conducted the initial central Merced count.

"It infuriates me that the organization has the nerve to say they're only 38 people. It's just not true. This is hypocritical of what they're supposed to be all about," Davenport said.

Alicia Ochoa-Jones, an association official, and Roberta Medina, a city code enforcement officer, conducted the recount on Monday morning in central Merced -- a region bordered by Bear Creek, G, R and 13th streets.

"I think we got a very accurate count," Medina said. "We went in every street and every alley in the commercial areas and some areas in the residential."

Ochoa-Jones could not be reached for comment.

"I've worked with the homeless for over 12 years," Davenport said. "Unless you go out and actually walk, you're not going to see them."

Former Councilman John Carlisle, who worked with Davenport on the initial count, also expressed frustration. "They're just making up numbers," he said.

The association decided to do a recount of central Merced because the reported number was drastically different from previous years, Flanders said.

Last year, association officials reported counting 52 homeless people in central Merced. However, officials said, that number was also the product of a recount after Davenport and Carlisle reported seeing 269 homeless people.

"It would be helpful for them to take us out to show us what they're seeing," Flanders said.

Davenport and Carlisle both declined an invitation to be part of the recount, saying they stand by their original number.

"We're not going to show them because then the city will end up trying to run them out of where they are," Carlisle said.

Davenport echoed the concern: "I know most of the homeless by name, and they trust me. I'm not going to put those people on the hook to make MCAG look like they're doing their job."

Both Carlisle and Davenport expressed concern that issues around homelessness in Merced County were not being properly addressed.

This year's homeless count and survey could prove otherwise, Flanders said. "If we see numbers going down, that shows us that whatever we're doing is working."

The homeless population in Merced County increased to 502 in 2012 from 485 in 2011, according to data from previous homeless counts.

In 2011, a coalition effort helped establish the Merced County 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, a document that helps association officials compete for grant money, Flanders said.

"I think this is the first year we'll actually see if there's been a difference since the plan was implemented," she said.

The 2013 Merced County Homeless Count and Survey is expected to be completed by March, according to association officials.

The homeless count and survey is required every other year to qualify for federal funding. Homeless service providers have received more than $2.5 million in funding since 2004, according to association officials.

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

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