Counting the homeless population is no easy task.
Sonoma County held its annual point-in-time homeless count on Friday, Jan. 25. The volunteers and guides met at the day worker trailer at Healdsburg City Hall before going out to cover north county.
Volunteers grouped up with guides, people who were near or in a homeless position not too long ago. Then each team was given a map of the area and went out to get as accurate a picture of the homeless population within a several hour span.
Healdsburg Councilmember Joe Naujokas was one of the volunteers. He said his map put him from Center Street east, covering parts of downtown and a large patch of residential areas.
His guide was a woman who had lived on the streets for seven years before making it into transitional housing. They set out past houses valued at more than $1 million as they looked for people living out of their cars or under natural shelter.
“It was humbling,” Naujokas said.
He said most of the numbers in his count were for vehicles that looked to be lived in, though not all clearly were occupied. His guide explained part of the problem in doing a census this way.
“She said, ‘You don’t want to be seen. You want to be left alone,” when homeless, he recounted.
At the same time, he added that there is a stigma attached to homelessness by the general public, “like you have a condition.”
Therefore, seeing homelessness can be a challenge, as neither group wants to be open about it.
“It’s a paradox,” Naujokas said.
While looking, his guide illustrated the homeless community for him. She shared the culture and character of the homeless who stay in the area and shared terms for different types of homelessness, slang Naujokas was not familiar with.
She described a tight-knit group, a “kind of self-regulating community,” he said.
His guide was sick of the stereotypes associated with homelessness, one of which is that they are all lazy. Another reason some of the population was hard to find was that, by a certain point in the morning, many had left for work.
Naujokas said as a councilmember, going forward he wanted to start making incremental progress to at least find ways to make life easier on the streets.
“There are a lot of little things we can do,” he said. “Maybe there’s room to expand shower services.”
Naujokas also said it might be time to coordinate homeless sweeps – where police and deputies clear out a certain homeless encampment – with the census effort. A sweep had occurred not too long before the count, and could have disrupted the population, making them harder still to locate.
Other suggestions and ideas he put forth included working with churches to find parking for people living out of their vehicles, getting navigation to homeless services better laid out and simply treating people with more respect.
“They have it rough as it is,” he said.
Naujokas was proud of the efforts the community made but he emphasized that he “can’t let good enough be it.”
Whether it’s looking at seasonal or transitional housing or use of public resources to provide aid, he said he’s open to ideas and hopes the community will continue to engage council in these efforts in creative ways.