Elected officials and members of news organizations toured several homeless encampments along Contra Costa County's northern waterfront Wednesday morning in conjunction with the annual point-in-time count, which aims to measure the homeless population in something like a census.
Wednesday's count began during the early morning hours as staff and volunteers with Contra Costa Health Services' Division of Health, Housing and Homeless Services began visiting known homeless encampments to survey the residents living there.
State Sen. Steve Glazer and Contra Costa County Supervisor Diane Burgis visited an open field in Antioch, where 33-year-old Victoria has pitched a tent amid some tall piles of stacked-up construction supplies near the Antioch BART station. She lives with her partner, their dog Titan and two cats.
They'd prefer to live indoors, but the cost of housing is prohibitive and Victoria said she has trouble finding work due to a medical condition. Meanwhile, living outdoors, one of her biggest concerns is dealing with law enforcement.
"They're always harassing us," Victoria said. "They basically come out and tell us 'you have 24 hours or 72 hours,' then they make you move."
That process is primarily handled by code enforcement officers, according to a spokesman for the Antioch Police Department, but officers do get involved in a peacekeeping role that can be compared to a civil-standby.
This was Glazer's second point-in-time count. He finds that hearing from people like Victoria gives him a better understanding of the challenges faced by his homeless constituents.
"What I've found when you go out on the homeless counts and you talk to the folks who are struggling, you get to hear their stories," Glazer said.
"In my own personal experience, they're neighbors who have run into trouble and have ended up here," Glazer said. "And they're here because it's still their neighborhood, they know it better than any other place."
Further down the delta, that turned out to be the case at a camp in Bay Point where 43-year-old Tiffany Hicks and 53-year-old Wendy Vigil have taken up together for safety and support. Hicks, Vigil and their friend Michael Finnigan, 66, all lived nearby before they became homeless over the last few years.
"It's brutal out here for these women," Finnigan said.
Hicks pointed out that homeless women like her are particularly vulnerable when living outdoors. She and Vigil routinely get unwelcome visitors at their campsite, and getting caught off guard could mean being sexually assaulted or robbed.
"The men try to take advantage of the women out here," Hicks said.
She's been known to sprinkle broken glass around their camp so she can hear it break under the feet of anyone attempting to sneak up. She calls it a "booby trap."
Hicks and Vigil have also had issues with theft. They said their belongings have been stolen by other homeless people as well as people living in homes. They've had laundry go missing, as well as wigs and identification.
"We have to rebuild when everything gets took," Hicks said.
The data collected in the count won't be available for weeks, but it will help county staff keep track of ongoing trends affecting the homeless community and local governments may also be able to use that information for the purpose of budget allocation.
Last year, their outreach determined that roughly 80% of respondents surveyed were living in Contra Costa County when they became homeless, and adults 62 or older were going homeless for the first time at an increasing rate.
Conducting the count also gives the county's outreach workers an opportunity to make contact with individuals experiencing homelessness and connect them with services that could help them get into shelters, access food and other resources.
More information can be found at www.cchealth.org/h3.