Homeless Count
Hipolito Gomez was among those encountered around El Centro on Jan. 24 by Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council volunteers during the annual count of the area’s homeless. William Roller photo

Volunteers Comb County To Count Homeless, Hear Their Stories

IMPERIAL VALLEY — One of the biggest challenges for Imperial County and other municipalities across the U.S. is finding a way to reduce the amount of people experiencing homelessness.

In furtherance of that objective, an annual count compiles mostly demographic data and reports it to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Jan. 24, the Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council sent out 15 teams of volunteers across the county to confirm the numbers of homeless and also examine ways they came to be unhoused. The data provides a snapshot in time to HUD, explained Isaen Equihua, administrative analyst for the county Department of Social Services. He also consults with the Care Council in a similar capacity.

“The purpose of the PITC (so-called point-in-time count) is for us to understand who are the homeless population and what their needs are,” said Equihua.

This is why the homeless are asked what services they’ve received or those they needed in the past 18 months.

“We’re not guaranteeing any services but we are interviewing the homeless with their consent so we can better help them,” added Equihua. “We need data to measure trends to know where we’ve been, are now and going to.”

Teams were also scheduled to count the homeless in the Slab City encampment north of Brawley on Jan. 25. The Care Council is scheduled to finish a report on the count by the end of April and submit it to HUD by the end of June.

Survey Teams Search and Advise

Once the 56 count volunteers were arranged in teams at the Martin Luther King Pavilion in El Centro they were dispatched with maps of specific assigned locales. The maps were drawn up with the help of El Centro Code Enforcement Officer Anna Garcia who has background engaging with the homeless if and when they run afoul of the law.

Despite Garcia’s breadth of experience it still required Arturo Lucero, El Centro building facilities maintenance technician and team captain, a bit of a search to locate the homeless encampments. After circling the Cinemark theater parking lot at the Imperial Valley Mall, Lucero drove east to vacant lots just a couple of hundred yards away.

An encampment of five makeshift lodgings were just visible as dawn began to break. In quiet whispers team volunteers Karrah Cardone and Mayra Ibarra, county Public Health Department emergency preparedness coordinators, assessed the situation.

“It’s just an observation. We can’t wake people up,” said Cardone. “But I’ve seen five lodgings and five people. There’s another person in the lodging there (pointing to an adjacent lot).”

Another loop around dirt roads on the perimeter west of Clinicas de Salud del Pueblo north of the mall found no homeless so Lucero drove west on Danenberg Road toward Fourth Street. A hundred yards past the railroad tracks a homeless gentleman in hooded sweatshirt, beard and tattoos on his neck and forehead was sitting with his shopping cart of belongings about 30 feet north of the road.

Homeless Demonstrate Perseverance

The man, Hipolito Gomez, 34, said he had attended Wilson Junior High School in El Centro but was diagnosed with schizophrenia just into his teens and dropped out of school. Eventually Gomez returned to school and graduated from Central Union High School. When asked by Cardone what services he would like to access, he explained he would like to get into an apartment and fill it with some food and soda.

“I stay away from the cops if I can. You don’t want to mess with cops. That’s what paranoia does to you,” he said.

Gomez said he receives supplemental Social Security income benefits and Medicaid and has been homeless for three years.

“I’m on my way over to Behavioral Health (2695 S. Fourth Street) to connect with social services.” said Gomez. “There’s a lot of craziness out here. I have hallucinations and sometimes I see a zombie.”

James Martinez, 35, was found with his shopping cart in a vacant lot 100 yards or so east of the Home Depot at 320 Wake Ave. Martinez said he is from Michigan but a desire to see the west brought him to Colorado where he has some family. He has worked as a massage therapist since he was 17.

“But traveling with a couple to Yuma, things went kind of awry,” he confided. “I’ve been here a year and I’m selling recycled cans and bottles. I’m trying to save to return to my family in Colorado, but it’s hard to make expenses.”

Heather Sanderson, 44, said she arrived in Imperial County from Sierra Vista, Ariz., after leaving her home state of Illinois. She did waitressing at the Po Folks restaurant as well as housekeeping for motels. She has not worked for several years since she has fibromyalgia. She was living in a makeshift cardboard tent just outside the fence at Carl’s Jr., 2215 S. 4th St.

In addition, Sanderson said she has borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I graduated high school and had some college,” she said. “I’ve been getting by for a while panhandling. If I could, I’d like to get a mobile home. That’d be great. I’m a party of one, and then I could go anywhere.”

Persistent Outreach Can Pay Off

During the count the homeless interviewed are asked if they have a physical disability, are fleeing domestic violence or if they have a serious mental health issue, explained Equihua. That will determine if they could benefit from the many services the Care Council could steer them toward. These include counseling for substance abuse disorder, mental health intervention, physical therapy, housing and food assistance.

“The (count) is one of four mandated reports required by HUD,” said Equihua. “Ultimately, the (count) is one of the critical factors that helps with estimating eligible resources from various funding entities that could come from a number of state or federal agencies.”

Another homeless person, Alani Rivaya, 79, grew up in Niland and was queen of the Niland Tomato Festival three times, she recalled from a makeshift perch near a dumpster in the parking lot of the former Lucky supermarket, 351 Wake Ave. She had been there six days and planned to return to one of the motels she was renting off Ocotillo Drive and Imperial Ave.

She said her husband passed away in 2014. Rivaya receives Social Security and until recently worked.

“I was a security guard with a company at Main and Eighth Street,” said Rivaya. “But when it slowed down a little they said they didn’t need anybody. I want to go to Palm Springs and open a business. I have some money and I like to open a shop selling men’s and women’s golf clothes.”

The 2019 count showed 29 percent of the local homeless were dealing with mental health issues, 14.6 percent with substance abuse, 8 percent were survivors of domestic violence and 4.3 percent were veterans out of a total homeless population 1,413.

Team captain Arturo Lucero noted he looked forward to serving again next year yet said the interviews were a little too long.

“Maybe we could restrict it to just the reasons they became homeless, but it would be rude to interrupt their stories,” said Lucero. “It’s interesting to hear their history. We always get different people to volunteer. That’s good, we get the whole city involved.”


This story is featured in the Jan 30, 2020 e-Edition.

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