Homelessness is getting worse in Merced. New report shows troubling spike in population

The number of people in Merced County who are homeless rose by more than 18 percent this year up to 607, according to an annual tally by volunteers released on Wednesday.

There were 322 sheltered people without a home and 285 who went without shelter, according to the report from the Merced County Continuum of Care, a group of homeless service providers and advocates.

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.

The count found 93 more people homeless than last year’s 514. Among those without a home were 108 children.

Merced County Supervisor Lloyd Pareira, who is on Continuum’s board, said people should not be completely disheartened by the rising number. He said Continuum has become a better functioning organization that can get homeless services to those in need faster than ever.

“I would say that this year has been very different than the previous few years,” he said. “We’re working together better, communicating better.”

The county has set up a new outreach and engagement center called New Direction, he noted. People who are homeless can be processed through the facility, allowing workers to get them connected to services.

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. About 30 percent of the renters in California spend more than half of their income on rent, according to a Harvard University study.

Merced’s notoriously low vacancy rate of 1 percent only drives up home prices and monthly rents. Merced Mayor Mike Murphy has said homelessness and housing are his highest priorities for his final two years in office.

The largest year-over-year increase in homeless people was 38 in Atwater for a total of 146 people. Los Banos saw five more people homeless this year, bringing the city’s total to 62, the report says.

Merced’s total fell from 310 in 2018 to 295 this year, the report shows, and Winton’s count plummeted from 21 to a single person this year.

A number of areas had single-digit homelessness, like Dos Palos (5), Delhi (4), and Livingston (6). Zero homeless people were tallied in Gustine and in smaller unincorporated areas.

Atwater and Dos Palos are also dealing their own housing issues. Gov. Gavin Newsom this year included those two cities on a list of cities out-of-compliance for not building enough new homes.

In a separate count aimed at connecting with homeless youth, volunteers took to areas known to draw the youth and interacted with them, according to Norma Cardona, Foster Youth Program manager for Merced Union High School District. She is also on the Continuum board.

“We’re really proud of this more robust approach,” she said.

Starting March 18, the D Street Shelter will transition from an overnight emergency shelter to what officials call a “navigation center,” according to Brenda Callahan-Johnson, Merced County Community Action Agency executive director.

The state is eliminating funding for emergency shelters as homeless experts pivot toward a housing first method, when a homeless person is housed before getting mental health or drug addiction services, she said.

The facility will be open 24 hours, staffed with case workers and allow storage. Officials are also working towards getting kennels for homeless people’s pets, she said.

“People come as they are and we will work with them as long as they’re moving toward housing,” she said.

The agency is holding a public meeting to talk about the changes with concerned residents at 2 p.m. March 15 at the Community Action Agency office, 1235 W. Main St. in Merced.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.