Several hundred volunteers fanned out across the county early Friday morning to tally unsheltered homeless people for an annual census. It was raining, adding yet another complication to a count that’s already fraught with hurdles in part due to San Diego’s geography.

Count organizer Dania Brett said Friday that it’s possible the rain affected the count, but that the group won’t know for sure until all of the maps are returned and analyzed.

I followed a team of counters near Horton Plaza Friday morning; you can read that account here. But that was just one of hundreds of teams across the county. I asked a few other volunteers to share some thoughts about their experiences. Did you volunteer? Add to our roundup by including your thoughts in the comments below.

Bill Bolstad, vice president of Father Joe’s Villages, counted in East Village.

Our experience was as good as it can be considering that we were counting people sleeping on the streets in the rain. Our group had one of the more populous tracts. It extended from Market and 9th south and east to 28 Street. From what I heard from some of the other groups returning, we by far had the highest count. Even still, one of group had been in the same area last year and said that he thought the numbers were down. It will be interesting to see how the total comes out. My concern would be that the rain would make the number look artificially low as people found ways to get out of the weather.

The only thing that surprised me was the lack of handmade shelters. Most of the folks we saw were just in sleeping bags out on the street, even though the rain was starting up.

Pat Seaborg, a social worker, counted near the Convention Center, Seaport Village and Marina Park South.

It seemed that I didn’t see as many homeless as last year. I’m not sure if the rain had altered the usual patterns (most of the areas we surveyed offered little shelter from rain) or if something else was a factor. I live in the area, so walk that area on a regular basis, and based on what I usually see during the daytime, I expected to see more, especially in Marina Park South. But in our area, we saw a total of seven homeless people.

Toni Atkins, a state assemblywoman, went out with the director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that organizes the count. This was Atkins’ fourth year participating, and she captained a large group of elected officials. She was tasked with surveying some of the people she encountered between Broadway and West Ash Street.

Atkins surveyed two people and said it was clear both needed services — one for mental health and one for alcohol treatment.

For third year out of four it was raining! It really drives home the point to us as surveyors how uncomfortable it is to be on the streets and homeless. … My human take away — these individuals just wanted a degree of personal understanding of their circumstances. 

Zack Warma, our community and events manager at Voice of San Diego, volunteered in Carmel Valley.

“While I was not optimistic about the chances of achieving any significant success in these ‘affluent’ neighborhoods, I was excited nonetheless,” he said.

Warma and his assigned teammate spent two-and-a-half hours driving around northern San Diego. They found just one homeless person who was sleeping on a thoroughfare’s sidewalk.

But Warma said the count changed his perspective on homelessness.

Growing up in this city, it seems I had fallen trap to the idea that homelessness was largely confined to “certain neighborhoods” (i.e. — downtown, OB, PB, etc.). Instead, I found myself peering down into canyons nestled in well-groomed suburban neighborhoods that had clear traces of human life. It became evident very quickly that San Diego’s vast network of canyons helps obscure the full narrative of our homelessness in the region.

I now more fully appreciate the fact that homelessness isn’t just an East Village problem, or a beach community problem, but something that affects virtually every neighborhood in San Diego.

Omar Passons, an attorney, went to Mira Mesa. A few things made his route tricky:

Rain, faded or nonexistent street names and lack of full detail topography. The SDPD told us the best place in our Mira Mesa area to go was a canyon under a bridge, but it was a) hard to find and b) dark …

We found someone sleeping in a car, which I was surprised to find way up there, also very, very few homeless in our large area that we could see.

Rachel Laing, communications director for Public Policy Strategies, was with Passons. She volunteered when she heard the organizers needed more counters. She found Mira Mesa challenging, because of its size and because “it’s not a place where sleeping on the sidewalks is accepted.”

We found one person sleeping in a tent in the canyon and spied another shelter but couldn’t tell if anyone was inside.

Frankly, I was surprised there was anyone at all living on the streets in Mira Mesa, because it’s so far from services.

Laing had a suggestion for the organizers.

I think it would have been better to have people counting in their own neighborhoods, where they’d be familiar with all the facilities and where people might be. I run through Liberty Station in the morning and know there are people who don’t appear homeless but who live in cars and spend their mornings on the boat channel and sleep in dark corners. I wonder if those counting in that area knew where to look.

City Councilman Scott Sherman went out on the count because he’s concerned about significant homeless populations in his district, near the San Diego River and in the canyons. “I believe that in order to effectively tackle this problem we must have accurate data,” he said.

Sherman’s team was in a residential neighborhood and didn’t find any homeless people — perhaps because of the rain, he speculated. But he said he was impressed by how many volunteers showed up, considering the rainy weather and the early start time.

Joe LaCava, a real estate consultant, counted in Normal Heights and City Heights. His team finished Normal Heights quickly, finding just a couple of people. They spotted a few places, though, where it seemed people may usually camp.

“We thought maybe the rain would’ve pushed those people into other locations,” he said.

When they returned quickly, his deployment center sent them back out to cover a tract in City Heights. Since it was later in the morning, people weren’t camped out, making it trickier to ascertain whether someone was homeless or “maybe just a little more colorful in how they dress.”

LaCava said he was drawn to the count because it’s an unusual way to volunteer. And he said he enjoyed exploring neighborhoods he doesn’t typically hang out in. He lives in Bird Rock.

He said it can be easy to avoid making eye contact with people on the streets. The count combats that tendency, he said.

“This forces you to confront and be aware of how many are out there, to kind of deal with it,” he said.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org 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.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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