Homeless count under way

By Glenn Wallace / Staff Writer / | Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 12:00 am |

 Volunteers began the task Monday of counting the homeless population in Santa Barbara County. Two volunteers start the predawn search in Lompoc.//Mark Brown/Staff

Homeless count under wayHomeless count under wayHomeless count under way

Thermometers read just above freezing Monday morning, as nearly 700 volunteers journeyed out into the back alleys, empty lots and hidden campgrounds of communities across Santa Barbara County.

Armed with flashlights and clipboards, the volunteers began their predawn mission to survey the county’s homeless — people who were not likely out in the frosty darkness by choice.

One of the people they found sleeping in his car was Richard Bottroff. Born and raised in Lompoc, the 57-year old said he never dreamed he would end up living out of his car.

“I worked in IT, but was laid off twice in 2008,” said Bottroff while he idled his engine for the windows to defrost enough to drive across town in search of food.

Ironically, one of his previous jobs had been working in a homeless center in Santa Barbara. But in July of 2010, his savings ran out, and he was evicted, becoming homeless himself.

According to organizers, for the more than 30 Lompoc volunteers, Bottroff was one of the few homeless who was found on the street during the initial survey sweep.

Organizers said many of the area homeless had likely taken advantage of the county’s emergency warming shelters over the weekend to avoid the recent cold and wet weather.

Bottroff agreed to be interviewed, and photographed by the volunteers, who proceeded with a 15-minute questionnaire, called the “vulnerability index.”

The index seeks to identify how a person came to be homeless, whether he or she is a veteran, and what physical or mental health care issues the individual may have.

The homeless survey was organized by Common Ground Santa Barbara, a partnership of several government agencies, homeless support organizations, faith groups and businesses.

Eventually, Common Ground intends to use the countywide database to identify those most in need of getting off the streets, and try to move them into a housing program.

But for Monday morning, volunteers offered the homeless bottled water, granola bars, personal hygiene kits, gift cards for food, and pamphlets on nearby shelters and countywide support services.

“Especially now with the economy the way it is, there’s a lot of people who are homeless who don’t choose to be, and could use help to get out,” said Bottroff, who added that he was thankful for the volunteers’ efforts.

The group that contacted Bottroff was led by Ann Ruhge of Lompoc. The former city councilwoman said she often took walks around the same area the group was surveying.

“Especially being out there when it’s so cold, you really get a feel for what it’s like for them,” Ruhge said.

With Ruhge’s group was Rick Capua, who said he volunteered because he saw a need.

“There’s a void there, with a lot of people falling through the cracks, and a lot of money in this country is spent on less important things,” said Capua.

By his side was another volunteer, Jean Mayes, who found a bicycle box, held closed from the inside, probably by a homeless person who opted not to respond to the volunteers’ request to come out.

“I feel uneasy about that, because it could be somebody who really needs help,” said Mayes.

In Santa Maria, dozens of volunteers split into teams, and found “about a dozen on the street,” according to Sylvia Barnard, director of the Good Samaritan shelter,  who has also helped organize Common Ground’s North County efforts.

Barnard said the North County efforts included volunteers in the Buellton and Santa Ynez area looking  for those “camping up and down Paradise Road.”

“In North County, we recognize we have a lot of people actually sheltered. They’re in motels, and we have a lot of people doubled up in homes, or filling shelters,” said Barnard, who reports that Good Samaritan’s Santa Maria and Lompoc facilities have all been filled to capacity lately, representing 250 men, women and children.

Survey work is expected to continue through Wednesday, with volunteers focusing on different locations around their community, and visiting all local shelters to survey as many as possible.

The results of the survey will be given to the public Friday afternoon, at a community briefing to be held in Los Olivos.

Barnard said the numbers of volunteers, and the countywide coordination of groups that have come together for the Common Ground project was meaningful.

“It’s been emotionally moving to see how many people come out to help others,” she said.

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