PACIFIC COUNTY — Each year during the depths of winter, a tally is taken tracking the most vulnerable during the most trying season. The annual Point-in-Time survey serves as barometer measuring homelessness in communities across America, while connecting services and resources to those in need.
Pacific County Public Hhealth and Human Services Deputy Director Katie Lindstrom said 107 people met the U.S. Housing and Urban Development definition of homelessness countywide during the count held last Thursday and Friday in Pacific County. The number is similar to previous years, Lindstrom said, explaining that external factors — such as daily weather conditions — can influence the count. During inclement weather — like the rainy conditions on Thursday and Friday — accurate counts can be elusive, as homeless people move into public places like libraries.
“For every one person we count, there’s probably four we miss,” Lindstrom said. Recent U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement arrests have also impacted the count as undocumented families have been more hesitant to talk and less likely to be seen in public.
“It was easier in the past to get info,” Lindstrom said.
Hidden in plain sight
Many of the homeless in Pacific County are not as apparent as their counterparts in the city, and a disproportionate number are children under 12.
“The [homeless] population on the Peninsula is different than in the city,” said Project Homeless Connect organizer Bill Buck. “The majority of our homeless are not on the street. The majority are living in structures they shouldn’t. They might not have heat, they may not have bathroom facilities, they’re living in an RV with a tarp on it — they are our homeless. They usually have a shelter, but it’s so substandard it’s sad.”
Others are couch surfing among friends, staying in RVs without electricity or sleeping in tents. More are arriving after being displaced from other places.
“We’re seeing quite a bit of RVs coming down because they’re bumping them out of Seattle and Tacoma,” Buck said. One in 20 children on the Peninsula are homeless, compared to one in 27 statewide. Most are under age 12.
“They’re young kids,” Buck said. “It’s a problem we’re going to have to address.”
Serving those in need
In total, 160 people sought services Thursday, Jan. 25, at Public Homeless Connect at the Elks Lodge in Long Beach.
“We usually have around 130 to 140,” Buck said. “That’s the range we’re usually in. It’s hard to tell with the weather, you just never know.”
It was the fifth year of the national event, held during the third week in January.
“It’s going on all over the country to get a point-in-time count of the number of homeless, so that they know how to approach the problem,” Buck said. “We have intake people that get the information they need for the PIT count, then the people will mark which services they need, then we have guides that take them around to checkoff.”
Sherline Capell was among an army of about 70 volunteers assembled for the five-hour event. Capell arrived at 4 a.m. to begin baking cornbread to compliment the taco soup served at lunch. The Cottage Bakery contributed a colossal sheet cake for dessert.
“It’s really a community thing,” Buck said. “We have 40 different providers here and Pacific Transit has a free bus day so that they can get here. By having all the providers at one place at one time they can come down here and get all the services and stuff they need — everything from housing to jobs. It’s a mix of secular agencies and the church and it’s all put together by Peninsula Poverty Response.”
The one-day event takes about three months of planning and coordinating.
“We started with about 25 participants and it’s grown every year because the need has grown every year,” Buck said.
Medical services were among the most sought after, particularly for eye care. Pacific Eye Clinic had a continuous line, but optometrist Jeffrey Nevitt didn’t leave before seeing the last patient. By the end, Nevitt had given 55 eye exams. After the exams, Sue Weber helped people pick out a pair of prescription glasses. They then tested their new eyewear by reading the fine print on ingredient labels.
“They’re really happy when they realize they can now read a book,” Weber said.
In another corner, Amanda King helped distribute blankets, boots and canteens, donations provided by Veterans Integration Program. Meanwhile Ocean Beach Hospital staff vaccinated more than 50 with flu shots.
Staff from Azure Beauty Salon washed, cut and styled hair for about 50 clients.
In spite of increasing services and those seeking them, the stigma of homelessness and receiving services still persists, but is slowly fading.
“The first year I was here it seemed very tense, like people were hesitant to come in the door or answer questions,” said Pacific County Health Department prevention specialist Carly Castaneda. “Now it feels much more friendly and congenial.”