Homeless population up 13 percent

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comFebruary 7, 2014 

Los Banos’ homeless population has increased by 13 percent, according to someone involved in the count for most of the past decade.

The Rev. Steve Hammond of Bethel Community Church said there are 85 homeless people in Los Banos, up from the 75 recorded in 2013.

Hammond, his son and Bethel Church’s secretary Gina Giscareno counted the homeless Jan. 22. They volunteered to assist Southern California nonprofit Urban Initiatives. The group counts Merced County’s homeless population as part of a subcontract for the Continuum of Care program, granted to it last year by the Merced County Association of Governments.

Hammond said the economy is likely the main reason Los Banos’ homeless population continues to rise.

“The economy seems to be picking up in other areas, but not here,” Hammond said. “We saw a (homeless) family with three kids, two boys and a girl. That’s something we haven’t seen before.”

Hammond said the children were elementary school age.

Joe Colletti of Urban Initiatives said the homeless count is mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The numbers allow Urban Initiatives and MCAG to request grant funding from the federal government to assist the county’s homeless.

Colletti said his group also collects information on categories of homeless.

“It makes the numbers more manageable,” he said. “Basically, the way HUD sets up, if you have a number of homeless veterans, families or singles, you can receive funding for that group.”

In the past three years, the Continuum of Care 10-year Plan to End Homelessness has garnered more than $281,000 for Los Banos and more than $2.5 million countywide.

Hammond said there is a need for homeless services in Los Banos and on the Westside in general.

“The only way you can get off the street is if you have a mental disorder or are addicted,” he said, referencing programs in the county for the mentally ill and drug abusers.

On Dec. 27, HUD determined that vacant property at 745 W. J St. is suitable to assist the homeless by listing it in the Federal Register. The property consists of two single-story buildings of concrete masonry construction totaling more than 5,000 square feet. The administration building is around 2,977 square feet, along with an enclosed garage building with roofed parking stalls that are approximately 2,398 square feet combined. It was formerly a USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service field office.

Hammond said he inquired about utilizing the facility, but the federal government told him he would have to lease the property and have funding to run programs for the homeless. Hammond operated the Los Banos Rescue Mission from 2008 until it closed in 2010. He made the decision to close the facility because its state funding was diverted to help reduce California’s deficit.

Colletti said his group plans to reduce Merced County’s homeless population by utilizing “best practices.” He said concepts such as Housing First, which puts the homeless in apartments before dealing with other issues they may have, and a similar program called Rapid Re-Housing, can accomplish that goal.

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