A recent survey shows 778 people in Butte County have no permanent place to call home. That big figure is startling - especially when you consider that the actual number of homeless people is probably significantly higher, said the Rev. Ted Sandberg of Chico.
Sandberg, a Baptist minister who serves on the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, said one of the things that stood out in the census was how many homeless children were counted.
Of the 778 homeless people, 222 were said to be youngsters. Of that number, 47 were found to be living on the streets, while 175 were in some type of shelter.
Mark Bledsoe, continuum of care coordinator for Butte County Behavioral Health, organized the survey, which was done on Jan. 31.
From now on, Butte County plans to do an annual census of homeless people to comply with requirements of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD offers "continuum of care" grants to help local governments meet the needs of the homeless, Bledsoe said. A requirement to get such a grant is doing an annual countywide census.
"It's a good idea," he said. It helps counties keep track of how many homeless they have and where there are gaps in providing help.
All over the nation, homeless censuses are done on Jan. 31 each year. Bledsoe, who was recently hired by Butte County, said he didn't have time to pull together a really thorough census this year. As a result, the count is certainly somewhat low.
The census was done in Chico, Paradise and Oroville and in some unincorporated areas. People who work with the homeless did the counting and so did several police officers from various agencies.
The numbers of homeless people counted per community were as follows: Chico, 570; Oroville, 160; and Paradise, 36. Twelve homeless people were counted in unincorporated parts of the county.
Of the total of 778 homeless people, 512 had temporary places to stay, in emergency shelters for the homeless, in motels, hospitals or transitional housing (like the Esplanade House). The rest were living out in the open.
Bledsoe said next year's census will be more thorough as well as more accurate. More people will conduct the survey, and they'll be able to find out more information about the homeless, such as their age, ethnicity, whether they're veterans and how long they've been without housing.
The longer people have been homeless, the more harm - emotional and physical - they do themselves, Bledsoe said.
Efforts are being made to take a countywide approach to the problem of homelessness, he said. He works with Behavioral Health's SEARCH Team, a program where workers try to find mentally ill homeless people and persuade them to get treatment for their illnesses. The program has operated in Chico and is being extended to Oroville.
Chico City Councilor Andy Holcombe, who serves as chair of the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force, said members of a group from Oroville, the Greater Oroville Homeless Coalition, have been attending meetings of the Chico task force, which is made up of representatives of various agencies that work with homeless people.
There are a number of reasons for the large numbers of homeless people found across America these days, Bledsoe said.
He's convinced one major reason is that the federal government now spends much less than it once did on providing affordable housing. At one time, the government invested $85 billion a year in affordable housing, but during the Reagan administration, the funds were cut. Today, about $22 billion is spent on affordable housing.
Finding housing can be tough for low-income people, he said. During the census, workers talked to a 22-year-old woman who had two small children. She'd take a shower at a local church and go to work. Some church members watched her youngsters while she worked. She was trying to save up enough money to pay first and last months' rent on an apartment.
For someone making minimum wage, it's very difficult to afford housing, he said. Most landlords want renters to be earning at least three times the rent each month.
The latest thinking on how best to help the homeless is to provide them with housing first, Bledsoe said. They should get housing and supportive services to help them keep housing. After they've had a place of their own for a while, it's thought they'll be in a better position to find a job or enroll in a training program.
Bledsoe came here from Placer County, where he also worked with Behavioral Health. He said in terms of providing compassionate help to homeless people, Butte County is "head and shoulders above" most counties in the state.
Staff writer Larry Mitchell can be reached at 896-7759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.