Volunteers and local officials gathered at strategic places throughout Santa Barbara County on Thursday afternoon and evening to participate in the annual countywide homeless count.

The phrase “Because Everyone Counts," printed on signs, greeted volunteers as they geared up to go out into the community for the 2017 Point in Time Count.

The effort aims to create a snapshot of who is homeless in Santa Barbara County and helps officials gather the information they will need to plan local homeless assistance programs and secure needed funding.

Santa Barbara County Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was among the volunteers Thursday working to reach out to the homeless population of Santa Maria.

“This is the count that determines the amount of funding we have coming from the federal government," he said. "It is important to me that we do an accurate count and we get all of the resources. We are short of resources as it is."

He added that it is a crucial time to find out who is out there, and more importantly, why they are out there and what can be done to help. 

The endeavor also helps raise the public’s awareness of homelessness.

“I think a lot of people get jaded and see people out on the street and think they made a choice to get there, and a lot of people through no fault of their own have found themselves in that circumstance," Lavagnino said. "It takes a whole community to rally together and get them back connected to the community.” 

This year’s Point in Time Count was organized by the Central Coast Collaboration on Homelessness (C3H) and Common Ground Santa Barbara County.

“This is a collaborative effort of organizations like the city, the county, Good Samaritan, Common Ground, churches. C3H was charged to oversee it, but we couldn’t do it without the volunteers from Santa Maria that took of their time to help make this happen,” said Chuck Flacks, C3H executive director.

Volunteers gathered in designated locations throughout the county. In Santa Maria, Centro Cristiano Vida Abundante Church at 121 W. Alvin St. was the count’s base of operations. The church also operates a warming center for those in need.

One of the 35 to 40 estimated volunteers, Debra Hubler, a citizen volunteer from Los Alamos, said the count hits close to home for her. 

"I'm doing this on a personal level," Hubler said. "My son is homeless in San Francisco."

She added, "When I see homeless people, I can relate to how their family members must feel. It's a vicious cycle for the homeless, and anyone of us could lose our jobs or become ill, and it could happen to us."

Newly homeless, but not for the first time, Sacramento native Norman Wicks explained that his situation resulted after losing ownership of his motorhome he had recently purchased in an effort get off the streets.

"This is not helping me as much as these other folks who are from here, but Sacramento has just as bad of a problem." Wicks said, as he waited for organizers to set up a crate for his golden retriever, Zoe.

Wicks added, "Only if you stand up and fight for your rights will you get what you need."

Besides conducting a homeless count, organizers offered a warming shelter for nearly 40 homeless members of the community at Centro Cristiano Vida Abundante Church, giving them care packages, $5 gift cards and a warm meal.

Providing the warming shelter was an initiative to encourage homeless people to access help, as well as ease time and resource constraints by gathering as many homeless at the location before counting in the community.

“Our goal tonight is to get as many people as we can inside. It is going to be a cold night,” Flacks said.

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C3H works to coordinate the resources available in the county to fight homelessness, including partnerships with agencies such as the Good Samaritan Shelter. 

Good Samaritan staff were sent to count everyone at the shelter, which was anticipated to be up to 150 people, Flacks said. Then, teams ventured out to find and tally homeless people outside shelters. 

Volunteers did more than just count on Thursday. They briefly interviewed the homeless people they identified and talked to them about the resources available to them, providing immediate assistance in the way of food and socks.

“One of the cool things here in Santa Maria, we will have the police helping us to do a late night count. They believe there are folks that don’t settle down until after 9 p.m. So we will have folks our counting from 9 to 11 p.m., Flacks said earlier Thursday.

Even though counts like 2017 Point in Time Homeless Count help federal agencies allocate resources, there are no federal funds for the project.

“The county gave us $15,000 to do this count countywide, which isn’t a lot," Flacks said.

She explained incentives, such as the $5 gift cards handed out, cost $10,000, while food and support cost $2,000. Another $8,000 went to Common Ground Santa Barbara for its organization of the volunteers.

Countywide, C3H is prepared to count about 2,000 people.

“Historically, the number of homeless people in Santa Maria has increased with the last two counts,” said Flacks, adding he expected counters would encounter about 300 to 350 homeless people in the city. 

Once all of the data is recorded and tallied, C3H will release a report based on Thursday’s activities. Flacks said the report should be released in March or April.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter