The grizzled man on the side of Piner Creek was tuned in for his daily segment of KSRO radio when strangers approached him early Friday, asked a few questions and moved on down the path to look for other homeless individuals to count.
Cheery and agreeable, though he chose to remain unidentified, the man proudly laid claim to a nearby bike, tarped and packed efficiently with what he said was everything he owned in the world, most of it donated.
Homeless for most of his 32 years in Santa Rosa — due “for the most part to a long streak of bad luck” — he said he stayed warm at night thanks to a sleeping bag rated for sub-zero temperatures. He doesn’t bother with a tent anymore, he said.
Each weekday morning, from a jury rigged AM/FM radio he showed off to visitors, he listens to two hours of news talk.
With that, he told his visitors to have a nice day and re-inserted his earbuds.
Almost nothing about his life or history was reflected in the tally sheet used by volunteers Friday morning across Sonoma County to count the current number of homeless residents. The encounter was noted on the sheet in ink-filled bubbles: a solo man in his 50s, sleeping outside, unsheltered.
Friday’s annual point-in-time census is meant generalize the scope of the homeless problem and document any measurable changes that might be evident year-by-year, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities, which helps coordinate the Santa Rosa portion of the annual street census.
It is also a required exercise if the county wants to qualify for more than $3 million in annual federal grants intended to help find housing solutions through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, county officials said.
Ideally, the census numbers go down, as they did last year. The 2017 count revealed an overall 2.4 percent drop in homelessness countywide, with an estimated total of 2,835 people.
But after the destruction of nearly 5,300 homes in the county during last October’s wildfires, there are fears homelessness is on the rise, said Holmes.
The count helps “to tell the story,” Holmes said, noting that behind each number is a person who for any of a number of reasons has been unable to maintain housing. Planned surveys of 600 people contacted Friday will be used to learn more about demographics, medical histories, employment, income status and other information.
About 150 volunteers and 70 paid homeless guides took part in the effort this year, deploying from five different centers around the county. Divided into teams, they headed out before sunrise in hopes that those they intended to count could still be found where they slept in cars, under bridges and in large group encampments, many of which were usually identified ahead of time.
The grass was still stiff with frost and the sky dark enough to make headlamps helpful when Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Jonathan Wolf, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Lisa Boehm and recently retired Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Keith Flood arrived in northwest Santa Rosa to do their part. The trio was one of about 30 teams deployed in Santa Rosa alone.
Their first stop was an open field off Piner Road in which at least 14 tent sites were tucked among the trees and shrubs along a well-worn, muddied path strewn with garbage, bedding, chairs, clothing, packaged food and random supplies.