Los Banos Homeless Count: Even more are living on the edge

By Thaddeus Miller / tmiller@losbanosenterprise.comJanuary 25, 2013 

Arturo Garcia has lived in Los Banos for seven years, working as a farm laborer.

"Picking the grapes, pruning the grapes," the 64-year old said, bouncing between English and Spanish.

Garcia stood outside his dwelling, with sides made of plastic roofing and a tarp stretched across the top. He is among a rising homeless population, according to a street count done by volunteers.

The Rev. Steve Hammond, count organizer, said the number tallied Wednesday was 79, four more than last year.

"We're seeing a few new faces," Hammond said.

Dozens of volunteers took a census of Merced County's homeless as Los Banos, Dos Palos, Merced County and the city of Merced are working together on the Continuum of Care 10-year plan to End Homelessness. A shelter count is mandatory annually and a street count is mandatory at least every two years for cities to be eligible for Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.

Hammond said volunteers counted 66 men, 12 women and one teenage girl.

"She's living with her mom," Hammond said about the girl. "She's living in a garage-type building ... like a shed."

In the past year, "two or three" residents have died and two got off the street and into housing, Hammond said, so the number of new homeless people is more than four. While some are homeless because of addiction, others are dealing with financial hardships or escaping abusive relationships, he said.

Finances are Garcia's reasons for joining the ranks of homeless. He said he's been in the United States 33 years as a legal worker, and has been employed in Southern Californian fields too.

The nights are cold and he could use a new jacket, he said, but he must rely on others for it. He said he regularly visits The Salvation Army for food.

Alicia Ochoa-Jones, Merced County Association of Governments Continuum of Care coordinator, said she did not expect to have countywide numbers until today.

However, Ochoa-Jones said she expected to have a more accurate tally than last year, because the Merced County Sheriff's Department volunteered to assist in areas of the county that have never been counted as part of Continuum. Their participation was contingent on regular duties, so as of presstime she did not know which areas were covered by officers.

Volunteers will conduct a survey today, Ochoa-Jones said, and ask the homeless if they have mental-health problems, addictions, disabilities, and other questions.

"It's a survey conducted by volunteers without a name associated to it," she said.

Hammond said having a more accurate census on the Westside is beneficial. Gustine, Dos Palos and unincorporated areas were not part of last year's count.

"We can give a better report to HUD," he said, adding the need in Los Banos gets worse every day. "We can get more funding coming this way."

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanosenterprise.com.

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.

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