Volunteers trek to survey homeless population

Vianey Crizantos Lopez, 37, was one homeless person counted in the census. She has lived in Hollister for about a year.

With a knit sweater, purple, pink and green shirt and dangly earrings, Maribel Ramos dressed the part of the artist.
“When I’m here, I read books. I write,” Ramos said. “I’m going to write a book and I’m going to start painting.”
But Ramos, 42, who speaks with her hands as well as her voice, is homeless. She’s one of many residents counted Wednesday morning as part of the San Benito County 2015 Homeless Census. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires counties across the nation to do a count during the last 10 days of January every two years.
Homeless guides are hired to take volunteers on tours of areas where most people with less traditional shelters spend the night in boxes, tents, mobile homes and encampments.
Ramos’ father was homeless for 26 years and struggled with alcohol and addiction. He’s now in a convalescent home. The younger Ramos used to visit her father, ask why he chose to be homeless, and serenade him with Mariachi music, she said. Now she’s on the streets recovering from some toxic relationships with men and trying to replace her own bad habits with new, better ones such as compulsive cleaning, rock collecting and reading.
In 2013, the same survey of the county showed 365 people were homeless. This number reflects just the people that volunteers could see. It excludes all the people homeless guides knew were in the area but were still sleeping in closed motor homes or already on the hunt for recyclables, which fund everything from drug and alcohol habits to the vaccines for a prized pet dog.
Volunteers participating in this year’s count were deployed in groups across the county ­to drive through downtown streets and along riverbeds in search of people.
The leader of the group that found Ramos is John Wolgamott, 59, who is homeless. Wolgamott served in the Marine Corps and was born in Germany where he holds dual citizenship, though he has lived in Hollister for 14 years. Among the volunteers in his group was the Hollister mayor, Ignacio Velazquez, who became actively involved in the homeless issue when he first took office more than two years ago.
Wolgamott and Velazquez met each other about 12 years ago over a dumpster at a restaurant the mayor owns on San Benito Street. Wolgamott and his girlfriend were looking for cans and asked Velazquez’s permission to take some out of the trash.
At first Velazquez struggled to share more than simple chitchat with Wolgamott, but things changed when the homeless man brought him a black and white photo from his childhood. 
“Once you start talking with them, you realize it’s you,” said the mayor.
In the photo, Wolgamott is a little boy clutching the hand of his mother and she’s “looking at him like he’s her whole world,” said the mayor. That’s the moment where that cemented their friendship.
With Wolgamott leading the way, the group walked along the cemetery and through Park Hill and downtown Hollister. Wolgamott took the project to heart and showed disappointment when he arrived at a tent where he knew people lived but they had already left for the day.
Plans to address homelessness in the future include building a temporary shelter in about a year. The county will choose a plot of land next week, the mayor said. The second project in discussion is to install tiny homesor one-room residencesand to ask the homeless to pay a modest rent and work or volunteer in exchange for shelter.
“A lot of us aren’t looking for a handout,” Wolgamott said. “We’re looking for a hand up.”
San Benito County Point-In-Time Homeless Census:
2013 count: 365
2011 count: 193
Chronic homelessness:
HUD defines chronic homelessness as an adult with a disabling condition who has been continually homeless for one year or more or has experienced four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years.
Chronic homelessness nationally in 2013: 19 percent
Chronic homelessness in San Benito County in 2013: 51 percent

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