The number of homeless people living in Merced County fell by 42 percent compared with last year, according to a report released Wednesday, which advocates say reflects new counting methods that are more accurate.
A January census organized by Continuum of Care, a coalition of homeless advocates and service providers, found 519 homeless people, down from the 899 reported at the same time last year.
“I truly believe we did a much better job counting this year,” Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan said. “A lot of that is reflected in these numbers going down. Now I believe we truly have an accurate number.”
The release of the homeless count report comes two days before the county’s inaugural “Homeless Summit.”
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Carrigan, who is also chairman of the continuum, said advocates and service providers have had success in housing people living on the street. The successes and the change in the counting method combined to account for the 380-person difference this year compared with last year, he said.
Advocates have consistently pointed to successes in housing homeless veterans as an example of the system working. This year, counters found 25 homeless veterans in the county, a 72 percent drop from last year’s 88.
519Number of homeless counted in Merced County
The number of volunteers recruited for this year’s census effort was more than three times the number who worked in previous years, allowing organizers to break the search areas into smaller districts. Organizers said that helped prevent anyone from being counted twice, and it allowed volunteers to speak directly with people to determine if they are homeless.
The count this year covered more of the county than ever, according to Phil Schmauss, a member of the continuum and marketing director for the Merced County Rescue Mission. Advocates will look to ramp up even further next year to cover Gustine, Livingston and some unincorporated areas, such as Snelling, he said.
The tally is not without its naysayers. Some members of the continuum have argued the new method for counting doesn’t compare with previous years and makes past counts moot.
The overwhelming majority of homeless people counted in Merced County are men between the ages of 25 and 61. Of the homeless people tallied, 21 were 62 or older, 26 were between 18 and 24, and 99 were women, numbers show.
After homeless veterans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked continuums around the country to target the chronically homeless, then youth and families living on the street.
I truly believe we did a much better job counting this year. A lot of that is reflected in these numbers going down. Now I believe we truly have an accurate number.
City Manager Steve Carrigan
To tackle the roughly 250 people in Merced County who are considered chronically homeless, leaders are positioning themselves for a two-year, $650,000 state grant, said Joe Colletti, executive director of Urban Initiatives, the nonprofit that contracts with the county to organize homeless efforts.
The money would pay for a small team of people versed in dealing with the homeless to go out on the street and speak with those chronically homeless to figure out how to get them housed. Colletti said the money is not guaranteed, but it is “targeted” at Merced County.
“It’s like we were thrown the football,” he said. “All we have to do now is catch it, and it’s ours.”
The continuum will be able to apply for those dollars in May, he said, and could have the money by October.
A full report from the continuum will accompany keynote speakers at the Homeless Summit, from 8:30 a.m. to noon Friday at the Christian Life Center, 650 E. Olive Ave. The presentation is set to start about 9:45 a.m.