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Why is the homeless population growing in Merced County?

Nitro Ricardo Rodriguez, 38, center, a homeless man, speaks with volunteers during the 2016 Merced City and County Continuum of Care Homeless Count in Merced, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Approximately 150 volunteers walked the city to speak with the homeless and offer them a quarter gallon bag containing snacks, socks and various hygiene products.
Nitro Ricardo Rodriguez, 38, center, a homeless man, speaks with volunteers during the 2016 Merced City and County Continuum of Care Homeless Count in Merced, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016. Approximately 150 volunteers walked the city to speak with the homeless and offer them a quarter gallon bag containing snacks, socks and various hygiene products. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

The number of people living on the street in Merced County is 514, according to a tally from this year, an increase of 13.2 percent from the previous year.

Volunteers counted 306 adults and six children unsheltered, and 173 adults and 29 children in shelters not considered habitable by people, according to the 2018 Merced County homeless count released Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count at least once every two years to be eligible for federal funding for homeless services. The Merced County Continuum of Care does the tally annually and received about $1.4 million in homeless-related funding in 2017 and 2018.

Merced City Manager Steve Carrigan was the chairman of Continuum for about three years until resigning in February. He said he was not surprised by the increase.

He pointed to state policies that he says add to the homeless population. He pointed Proposition 47, Proposition 57 and Assembly Bill 109, separate legislation that reduced sentencing for some crimes and increased the number of people eligible for parole.

"We're getting hit hard," he said. "We're feeling the full effects."

After showing improvements last year, the count found 60 more homeless people this year, bringing it to similar numbers from two years ago. The 2016 count reported 519 homeless people.

But, statewide, homelessness has increased. Advocates say a lack of housing exacerbates the problem in Merced, Los Banos and other parts of the county and state.

Merced and other smaller cities can sometimes draw homeless people from the Bay Area or Fresno or other bigger cities, because the people are under the false assumption they have a better shot at housing in smaller place, according to Phil Schmauss, the count coordinator for Merced County.

"That's just not the reality because we're helping our people first," he said, noting programs typically require a person to be a resident of the county for at least a year.

He also pointed to another potential factor of an increase in homelessness, which is a substantial number of households that are "at-risk of becoming homeless." Approximately 20 percent of Merced County residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2017 American Community Survey. So about 54,000 of the 268,672 county residents are at risk, according to advocates.

The overwhelming majority at 75 percent of Merced County's homeless people are male, while 22 percent reported being female. None of those questioned said they were transgender or gender nonconforming, though seven gave no answer, the report shows.

None of the homeless people tallied were unaccompanied minors, though 21 were between the ages of 18 and 24, and 11 were 62 or older. Ten were veterans, the report says.

One in five people became homeless for the first time in the past year, according to the report.

More than one-third (37.6 percent) has a chronic health condition such as diabetes, heart trouble, high blood pressure, seizures, hepatitis, respiratory problems, epilepsy, tuberculosis or arthritis, the report says. About 25 percent had serious mental health problems.

In individual cities, there was a mixed bag of increases and decreases. Merced had 310 homeless people, eight fewer than a year ago. Los Banos had 19 fewer people on the street with a total count of 57.

Atwater had 108 homeless people, more than tripling last year's count. Winton had 14 more homeless people, bringing the total to 21.

Los Banos' success has largely to do with outreach workers, a new effort, who reach out to the homeless instead of waiting for them to seek help, according to the Rev. Steve Hammond, a Continuum member who oversees the Westside.

The Westside's homeless tend to be "homegrown" or stranded migrant workers, he said. Outreach workers help to get people housed or reconnected with family, with the latter being more common among migrant workers.

"That started the beginning of last year, and that was the major contributor to the drop in Los Banos," he said.

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