The number of homeless people in Merced County has more than doubled in one year, according to the homeless count released on Monday.
There are 768 homeless people in Merced County, including 21 children, based on the 2014 Homeless Count and Survey. The number shows the vast majority of those people, 609 or about 79 percent, are living on the streets. The rest were counted in shelters and transitional housing programs.
Last year, the same survey counted 372 adults and children living on the streets or at homeless shelters, down from 502 in 2012.
The yearly homeless count and survey provides data that allows the county to qualify for federal funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last year, Merced County received about half a million dollars in federal funding for homeless programs.
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About 30 volunteers searched the county for homeless individuals between 6 and 9 a.m. on Jan. 22. The volunteers included homeless or formerly homeless people for the first time, which officials said helped get a more accurate number.
“It helped us identify the targeted locations where homeless people are,” said Jeanette Garcia, the county’s Continuum of Care administrator. “I think that’s the biggest reason why the (homeless) numbers went up.”
But the dramatic increase in the number of homeless people this year has some who work with the homeless calling into question how the survey is taken and the accuracy of last year’s count.
“It is possible you’re not going to count every person, because it’s a single point in time and people move around,” said Sofia Herrera, director of community psychology with Urban Initiatives. The Southern California nonprofit was hired to conduct the homeless count and help implement the county’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.
Volunteers can count only the people they observe, Herrera said, so some people could have been missed. If an area was counted as having zero homeless people, she added, it could be because none were observed at the time.
At least one homeless advocate questions the accuracy of the 2013 survey and claims the number was manipulated by the Merced County Association of Governments in an effort to secure more funding from HUD.
“There’s not a huge uptick in homeless people in Merced, it’s simply that last year MCAG inaccurately reported the count numbers,” said John Carlisle, executive council member for Continuum of Care, which works with the association to secure funding for homeless services. “If you can show good results and measurable outcomes, then it makes it more likely that you would get more funding.”
After criticism of last year’s low numbers for the count, MCAG maintained the homeless survey was accurate and showed that its housing programs were working. MCAG spokeswoman Lori Flanders did not return calls for comment Monday on the 2014 survey results.
About 26 percent of homeless people counted were surveyed to learn more about them. For example, 64 percent were men and 36 percent were women.
More than one-third of the homeless population were women, an 11 percent increase from last year. About 83 percent, or nearly all those who reported having HIV/AIDS, were women.
About 39 percent had mental illnesses, 33 percent were substance abusers, 31 percent were victims of domestic violence and 6 percent were veterans.
Some areas of the county, including Le Grand and Planada, were not included in the count because of a lack of volunteers.
Next year, the team plans to target those areas in addition to using a shorter window of time to complete the count – two hours in the morning instead of three.