Cheyenne Lewis and Norma Sanchez were out at dawn in Watsonville counting...
photo by Dan Coyro/Sentinel

WATSONVILLE - Norma Sanchez slowly navigated her car through an alleyway off Freedom Boulevard in Watsonville early Tuesday morning, then paused in front of a Dumpster where a man was foraging, his ragged bike-and-cart combo standing several feet away.

Cheyenne Lewis, riding in the passenger seat, put another mark on the census map, and they continued on their way.

"When we found someone who was homeless, we got excited, but we shouldn't be getting excited because they're homeless," Sanchez later said. "But in a way, we're helping them by helping to get funding."

Sanchez, a 31-year-old Watsonville resident, and Lewis, a 19-year-old Watsonville resident, were among the more than 100 volunteers - including about 50 homeless "guides" - who began traversing Santa Cruz County at 6 a.m. Tuesday as part of the 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey.

Because their routes mostly took them through residential neighborhoods, by 10 a.m. they only counted six people who they could identify as homeless. Asked what characteristics they look for when conducting a visual count, they paused to consider.

"Do you follow the stereotype of what a homeless individual looks like? It's really difficult," said Sanchez, who's employed as an eligibility worker at the Shelter Project in Watsonville.

It's easy to tell some people are homeless, like the man they spotted digging in the Dumpster. But others - people whose only mode of transportation to work is by bicycle, for instance - are harder to figure out.

The teams that dispersed across the county Tuesday morning conducted visual counts by driving along their routes with their guides and using their best judgment, said Samantha Green a research analyst with Applied Survey Research. The nonprofit social research firm has been conducting the counts in Santa Cruz County since 2001.

"What's the mold, what are you looking for?" Sanchez asked rhetorically. "We're told 'Don't stereotype,' 'Don't stereotype what a homeless person looks like,' but here we are, stereotyping to try to fit somebody into a mold."

To get as accurate a count as possible, Green said, other volunteers walked through the harder-to-reach areas such as Pogonip in Santa Cruz and the Pajaro River in South County.

"We know that this count doesn't reach everybody" and so does the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires counties to conduct the counts every other year in order to obtain funding, Green explained. "This is just a snapshot of homelessness in Santa Cruz County."

In addition to the drive-by and walking counts, homeless and transitional shelters took head counts at their facilities Monday night and Tuesday morning and sent that data to the research company. A separate count of homeless teens was conducted Tuesday afternoon, Green said, since youth "don't normally hang out with the rest of the homeless population and tend to come out later in the day."

In addition, homeless representatives from veteran, youth and other communities will begin conducting in-depth interviews next week with their peers. Through those interviews, they hope to find out, among other things, how they become homeless, their health status, and whether they have children.

Last month, 11 programs designed to help the county's homeless learned they would share almost $1.7 million in grants from HUD. Nora Krantzler, senior human services analyst with the county's Homeless Persons Health Project, said that's about the same amount the county receives each year.

Julie Conway, the county's housing project manager and coordinator of the Homeless Action Partnership, said the HUD funds are a significant source of funding for homeless and housing services, but the county also receives larger amounts from other federal agencies.

For example, the county's Homeless Persons Health Project - which provides the homeless with food, supplies, and basic necessities while they recuperate from illness or injury - is part of the national Health Care for the Homeless program. That program, she explained, receives its funding from the federal Health Resources Services Administration.

Results of the survey will not be available until April, according to Joanne Sanchez, a research analyst with Applied Survey Research.


Every other year, volunteers team up with homeless 'guides' to count the number of homeless individuals living in Santa Cruz County. The census has been conducted by Applied Survey Research since 2001. The $40,000 cost is split among the county and cities of Santa Cruz, Capitola, Scotts Valley and Watsonville. This year's results will be available in April. The previous years' counts:

n 2009: 2,265

n 2007: 2,789

n 2005: 3,371

SOURCE: Applied Survey Research