Two hundred volunteers from all walks of life spread out through Sonoma County last Thursday for the county’s annual visual count of the homeless. With them were 70 to 80 homeless guides — currently or recently homeless individuals who the county pays $15 an hour to help with the count each year.

“They’re the real experts,” said Michael Gause, Continuum of Care Coordinator for Sonoma County Community Development Commission, the agency that oversees homeless services. This is Gause’s fifth year managing the count.

“Our guides, having been homeless themselves, are familiar with the areas they cover. They know where to look and the places to pinpoint,” Gause said.

Volunteers and guides travel by car and foot to areas where local homeless people are known to live or congregate, then they do a visual count.

“We instruct the volunteers not to make contact, unless someone comes up to them,” Gause said. “It’s really just meant to be a visual survey.”

Thursday’s count, which took place from 5 to 10 a.m., is known as the unsheltered count.  The unsheltered count is just part of a two-week effort that actually started the night before with the sheltered count, a tally of all the people staying in official homeless shelters.

A third count begins Thursday evening, focusing on homeless youth, age 18-24. This count is done by a group of 18-20 homeless young people, who are also paid $15 an hour for their work.

“Homeless youth actually lead this count themselves,” Gause said. “This is considered a transitional age group. They don’t tend to hang around with the older population, so we need a different approach to get an accurate count.”

The count will continue for the next two weeks, as the homeless guides go back out into the field to do 600 in-depth surveys of homeless individuals, tracking demographic information such as age, sex, race, as well as how the person became homeless.

“The guides are in the best position to do those in-depth surveys because they’ve been homeless themselves, and there’s a level of trust there because of the shared experience,” Gause said.

The final numbers from the count will be included in a report to be released this summer. 

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