First day of homeless tally turns tricky 

It may contradict the intuition of some Peninsula lunchgoers who find themselves hit up by panhandlers on their way back to the office, but locating the homeless can be hard.

Three hours into a search along the railroad tracks in South San Francisco that began before dawn Tuesday, volunteer and county social services manager Jerry Lindner and homeless guide Dan Wozniak had little to show for their efforts. The two-man team, part of a countywide homeless count involving about 300 volunteers, rustled bushes and checked alleys and underpasses, but tallied fewer than half-a-dozen people.

"This is not as easy as I thought it was going to be," Lindner said, returning to the car again empty-handed.

Volunteers further south had more success with their counts, finding about 200 people in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, 100 in Redwood City and 50 in San Mateo, according to preliminary numbers.

The county must conduct the count to receive about $4 million annually from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Wendy Goldberg, homeless services manager for San Mateo County. That money accounts for about 65 percent of the homelesshousing service funds overseen by the county Human Services Agency, Goldberg said.

"The numbers will serve as one benchmark of our success in ending homelessness," Goldberg said, referring to the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness that was developed last year.

This year’s two-day count involves more than three times the number of volunteers used in the past, and includes a phone survey of property owners aimed at counting the number of homeless staying in vehicles or sheds on private property, Goldberg said.

The more comprehensive approach could ultimately result in increased funding for the county — which counted 1,230 homeless in 2005, including 491 living on the streets, Goldberg said.

A survey asking people why they became homeless, what services they require and their basic medical needs will help paint a more complete picture, officials said.

Homeless guides, such as Wozniak, were also hired for the first time to help direct the search, Goldberg said. Paid about $50 for his efforts, Wozniak, who has been homeless since 1992 but primarily lives in shelters or sleeps in his car, helped point out the occasional camouflaged shelter or make judgment calls on whether people were homeless. "The homeless are just people trying to get their lives back together," Wozniak said.

The fact that some homeless encampments were empty Tuesday doesn’t mean those homeless weren’t counted, as they may have gone into town, Goldberg said.

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