Here’s what it’s like trying to count Sacramento’s homeless at night
A man breathed heavily as he rolled a cart of wooden pallets down North 10th Street between warehouses and factories, preparing to roll it up the hill toward the American River.
He was intercepted by a group of four volunteers who were canvassing a section of the river district Wednesday night for the Point in Time Count, which records the number of homeless people in Sacramento County on a given night.
“Excuse me, are you experiencing homelessness?” volunteer Cedric Early asked.
“Yes,” the man replied, agreeing to participate in a survey for a $5 McDonald’s gift card.
The man, Ladell Sampson Jr., 52, had been homeless for two years since he was airlifted to UC Davis Medical Center from Stockton as a burn victim, he told a group of volunteers.
He was walking down the street one day in Stockton when someone threw gasoline on him and lit him on fire, burning 48 percent of his body, he said. He’s been camping along the American River since he was released from the hospital, he said.
“If you can handle it out here, you can handle it anywhere,” Sampson said, sweat forming underneath his red cap.
He answered a series of questions about his background and health, shook hands with the volunteers, took a deep breath, then started to push the cart up the hill again.
Sampson would use the pallets to reinforce his tent to make it more sturdy during the rainy season, Early said.
The story isn’t unusual for Early, who hears stories like Sampson’s on a daily basis while working for nonprofit Sacramento Steps Forward, walking the River District and trying to connect homeless people to housing, jobs and medical care.
Wednesday night, though, he faced a different task: Leading a group of volunteers to count all homeless people they see and, for those awake and willing, asking a series of questions.
The information from the Point in Time Count, performed every other year, will help organizations that serve the homeless, and could result in increased state funding, said Ben Avey, Sacramento Steps Forward spokesman.
The last count, done in winter 2017, showed a startling 30 percent increase from 2015 — from 2,822 to 3,665 people living without permanent shelter in Sacramento County. It was the highest count of homeless ever recorded in the county.
Avey will not be surprised if the new number, set to be released this June, is even higher, he said.
“A lot of programs from the city, county and state are great starts and they are starting to get traction, but I don’t know if they’ve gotten enough traction to really have a dent in those numbers,” Avey said.
Since the last count, the city has opened a 100-bed triage shelter in north Sacramento — the first large shelter in the city to allow people to bring their pets, partners and possessions, and without requiring a drug and alcohol screening. Guests also receive medical and mental services and help removing barriers they face to finding permanent housing.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg has asked all eight council members to find sites in their districts to open more triage shelters.
The count includes people who are staying in shelters, though, so a decrease will require much more affordable housing in the area, Avey said.
“To end homelessness, we have to look at the housing crisis,” Avey said.
Many of the county’s homeless grew up here, but were priced out of the market.
That’s what happened to Keith Morgan, 56, who had an apartment in Citrus Heights with his wife just two years ago.
“We didn’t get a new place before leaving our place, which was a mistake,” said Morgan, who sleeps in a tent along the American River, where he cooks dinner and plays guitars for his neighbors. “Now I’m on a lot of waiting lists, but can’t afford double the rent.”
Morgan has five dogs — one just had puppies — which is an issue for finding housing or a shelter bed, he said.
Even with no end to homelessness in sight, Morgan maintains a positive attitude, which he shares with the young homeless men he meets, he said.
“I look at it as a living room with lots of space and a river running through it,” Morgan said. “It’s gonna get better.”
His attitude will help him improve his situation, Early said, offering to come back the next day to connect Morgan to services. He accepted.
As they continued along the Two Rivers Trail with flashlights and safety vests, the volunteers talked to a 25-year-old man with schizophrenia and a 52-year old Navy veteran suffering from a back injury, both sleeping in tents.
The group counted about 90 homeless people, mostly along the riverfront between 12th and 5th streets, ending around 11 p.m.
A separate group of volunteers made their way down Sunrise Boulevard in Citrus Heights — one of many suburbs skirting Sacramento where residents say they’ve seen an increase in homeless people. A new 47-unit supportive housing complex serving homeless people is set to open there by 2020.
Dennis Brodsky, a retiree who led the Citrus Heights team, has participated in nearly every Point in Time count conducted here, he said.
“It turned my head around,” Brodsky said. “You find out they’re not all inebriates or drug addicts. ... It’s, ‘I lost a job, lost rent, then ran out of gas’ and then they stay in their car but then it got towed away.”
At about 9 p.m., the volunteers came across a group of homeless people sitting outside a McDonald’s on Sunrise Boulevard.
Among them was Brittney, a 27-year-old with bright blue eyes and her curly brown hair tied in a bun.
Declining to give her full name to be candid with the survey team, she said she’s been homeless on and off for about 10 years.
She primarily stays in Citrus Heights, where she grew up and feels “comfortable,” and sleeps in the doorways of businesses. She doesn’t carry much besides a purple backpack and a pile of notebooks.
“I write a lot, about life,” Brittney said. “Anything I’m feeling.”
After getting her gift card, she quickly bought two McChicken sandwiches.
In total, the group spotted nine homeless people Wednesday night in their search area.
About 800 volunteers participated in the count this year — up from 250 in 2017, Avey said.
For many of the volunteers, like Vice Mayor Eric Guerra, it was their first time out.
Guerra joined a group canvassing a section of the riverfront that included where the American and Sacramento rivers meet.
“It’s important not to just make policy in a vacuum on the top floor of City Hall,” said Guerra, who joined Councilman Jeff Harris on the walk. “You gotta get out there.”
Harris said he noticed fewer homeless on the riverfront this year than in 2017, but it’s hard to say for sure. His group spotted about 18 homeless people, Harris said.
Kim McGivern and her husband signed up as a first-time volunteer in the hopes of understanding the issue of homelessness better. Her 25-year-old daughter is homeless in San Jose, she said.
“She doesn’t want the help, so I can help other people,” said McGivern, 53, of North Natomas. “We will do it every year.”
McGivern will head out again Thursday night to survey an area in south Sacramento.
It’s the first time the count will take place over two nights, Avey said. Wednesday night covered areas with known homeless populations that were also covered in 2017, to provide a comparison, while Thursday will cover mostly new areas, he said.
In 2017, the count likely missed a lot of homeless “transitional-age youths,” those in their late teens and early 20s, including those aged out of the foster care system. In an effort to fix that this year, the organization held an event at Wind Youth Services, where counting was done, and deployed teams comprised of youth volunteers, Avey said.
“We’re always trying to get better,” Avey said. “People acknowledge the Point in Time count is an undercount, and we agree it is, but it’s our job to get it to be less of an undercount each year.”