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As a team of three left a Bankers Hill church to comb a few dozen downtown blocks surrounding Horton Plaza, the downtown library and the courthouses, the weather picked up from a sprinkle to a steady rain.
This morning was the annual pre-dawn census of unsheltered homeless in San Diego, the count that provides the region’s best sense of where homeless people are living and their demographics. It’s a giant undertaking by the Regional Task Force for the Homeless. We’ve written about some of the challenges inherent in the count, like covering San Diego’s vast geographic area and dense canyons.
This morning, there was another challenge: rain.
Photographer Sam Hodgson and I followed one of hundreds of teams counting across the county early Friday morning.
4:42 a.m. Katherine DiFrancesca, a Cortez Hill resident, picked up the map of her assigned Census tract at the deployment center at First Presbyterian Church in Bankers Hill. Her map stretched from Broadway south to Market Street, and from State Street east to 9th Avenue.
DiFrancesca is a forensic psychologist who assesses clients for attorneys and courts, and sometimes serves as an expert witness. She also serves on the county’s Mental Health Board. She’d never taken part in the count before.
4:59 a.m. The church hall buzzed as volunteers met their assigned teammates. One man caught a few extra minutes of sleep while he waited.
5:15 a.m. DiFrancesca met her teammates, a married couple from Mission Hills named Joe Nafziger, an advertising copywriter, and Angel Chelik, a fitness instructor. They’d heard about the count through one of Chelik’s clients. Chelik has taught fitness classes in Balboa Park and interacted with people who are homeless there. We all piled into their car to drive closer to the assigned zone.
5:26 a.m. Nafziger and Chelik led. They spotted a man pushing a cart and carrying bags. Chelik noted him on her map. No more than a handful of sleeping people were visible on the first few blocks as we traveled east from State Street around the courthouses and Ralph’s supermarket.
5:42 a.m. Chelik ducked around a partial brick wall near Ralph’s and spotted someone sleeping.
A couple more men were sleeping sitting up on bus benches near 4th Avenue and G Street.
The streets of the Gaslamp Quarter were quieter than I’ve ever seen them. The rain may have contributed, but walking around that neighborhood without the usual crush of people and cars felt disorienting.
6 a.m. The team noted one person sleeping in front of Urban Outfitters. A few others slept in doorways of restaurants and shops.
Jazzy music filled the air near one storefront. “Do you think they play that so people don’t sleep there?” Nafziger asked. (A recent effort in the city of Escondido involved blasting classical music in the park to discourage people from sleeping there.)
6:27 a.m. As the trio moved east, they began to see more people. A few had perched shopping carts under an overhang near the Salvation Army. Several others were sleeping near the blue gates of the downtown post office.
DiFrancesca said the post office used to open its doors at night to house homeless women.
6:32 a.m. There were 20 people in front of the downtown library, sleeping mostly in a line. While Chelik marked the map, DiFrancesca handed out slips of paper with information on how to be interviewed for the demographic survey portion of the count. The task force offers $10 Subway gift cards for those willing to participate in the survey, so she emphasized the perk.
6:37 a.m. A woman wearing a Chargers beanie noticed the team and walked up. She chatted about the rain and speculated it was complicated the work of counting.
Then she beamed.
“I can honestly say you don’t need to put me on the list,” she said. “I got my own place.”
She gushed about Blitz Week, a recent downtown project that places vulnerable people in housing and connects them with services. She’s living in an affordable housing complex called Studio 51, she said.
“Isn’t that awesome?” she said.
(The woman is the second person to appear in this Blitz Week mini-documentary, in which she says she’s been homeless for seven years and on the streets for five.)
6:47 a.m. As the sky lightened and the rain got heavier, the team marked a couple last people on the map. Downtown traffic was picking up. Workers under umbrellas walked past.
7:05 a.m. The three, now quite damp, walked back to the starting place and got in the car to return the map to the church.
7:12 a.m. The sheet was pretty drenched, so Chelik and DiFrancesca transferred their markings onto a dry copy.
All told, the team counted 72 people — many sleeping under tarps and awnings. Their map will be compiled with more than a dozen others collected by 60-plus volunteers at the Bankers Hill Presbyterian church deployment center alone. This group’s count will be combined hundreds of others from around the county to give the Regional Task Force a snapshot of the county’s homeless population.
I’m expecting to hear from a few others who promised to recount their experiences tallying elsewhere in the county. I’ll relay their stories in a separate post. In the meantime, were you part of the count? Share your experience with me in the comments below.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.