Merced County homeless numbers decrease

But some call county survey's method flawed

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMay 27, 2013 

— The number of homeless people in Merced County has dramatically decreased, according to this year's recently released Homeless Count and Survey.

However, some have questioned the accuracy of the point-in-time count, in which 50 volunteers searched the county for homeless individuals for three hours in January.

This year, volunteers counted 372 adults and children living on the street or at homeless shelters, down from 502 last year, according to data from the Merced County Association of Governments.

"We're happy to know that the housing programs are working, by taking people from the street to permanent housing," said Lori Flanders, spokeswoman for MCAG.

The homeless count and survey provides data that helps drive the distribution of federal resources and the efforts of local service providers, according to association officials.

Controversy arose earlier this year, when association members recounted a large area in the city of Merced and subtracted more than 150 homeless people from an original count.

"I believe that the numbers have been manipulated by MCAG to suit their purposes," said John Carlisle, executive council member for the Continuum of Care, which works with the association to secure funding for homeless services.

"I really don't think there's been an appreciable decrease," he added. "I think it's probably increased some from last year."

The homeless count and survey counted 20 homeless children, up from last year's 13.

At the same time, the Merced Union High School District identified more than a 1,000 students who, in the last nine months, experienced a lack of stable housing or homelessness.

The number of homeless in the region over the last year has been fairly static, said Brenda Callahan-Johnson, executive director of the Community Action Agency, which runs the D Street homeless shelter.

"I think the way the count is done is flawed," she said. "It's a guessing game. I think by design it's hard to get an accurate number. As far as our numbers at the shelter, it has remained consistent."

The numbers are not perfect, but they accurately show progress, Flanders said.

"There are more homeless than what we've counted," Flanders said. "This is just a snapshot. But this gives us some idea of whether the numbers are going up or down."

"It all comes down to the funding," she added. "As long as we keep ourselves competitive to access permanent housing funds, the more we'll see the numbers decrease."

The homeless count is required for local homeless programs to qualify for Department of Housing and Urban Development funding. Homeless service providers have received more than $2.5 million in funding since 2004, according to MCAG officials.

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

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