An estimated 100 homeless in Oakhurst area

For three days last week, the search was on for the homeless as cities nationwide conducted a simultaneous survey to determine the number of homeless in each community. Locally, the survey was conducted through the Fresno/Madera Continuum of Care, with the purpose of determining the allocation of financial resources for low income housing across America through the Housing and Urban Development program.

“A lot of shelters and housing programs get their funding through HUD,” Michael Baird, survey coordinator for Eastern Madera County, said.

Baird and his team relied upon area churches, Manna House, Friends of the Park, and encountering the homeless on the streets to attain as close a count as possible.

“At the end of the three days, the total surveyed was 51,” Baird explained, “which, per capita, is a pretty substantial number, but it’s not accurate. I know there’s another 20 or so who didn’t get surveyed or didn’t want to be surveyed. Then there are those non-traditional homeless, people living in a trailer without water or electricity - places not necessarily suited for human habitation - who were more difficult to count. Homelessness is a complicated issue, and they are not always living on the streets or camping in the woods. Some may have friends in the area and may couch-hop, or sleep in backyards. Some sleep in vehicles, and you may never guess that they were homeless passing by them in town. My best guess is that there about 100 or so homeless in Oakhurst.”

According to Baird, last year, the official number of 20-30 homeless in Oakhurst was off because the survey was conducted by Madera residents, who were not familiar with the Mountain Area.

Baird has been an Oakhurst resident since 2007, and has worked with the homeless for 18 months. As the primary coordinator for Full Circle Primary Outreach, an emergency homeless shelter in Oakhurst run through area churches, the homeless know Baird.

He began working with the homeless as a volunteer for Full Circle Family Outreach while employed at Emerald Cove Camp as director of operations. Now as the administrator at Sierra Vista Presbyterian Church, part of his job is doing community outreach for the church, and involves addressing the issues of poverty and homelessness in the Mountain Area.

Each individual surveyed was asked 24 questions, covering basic demographic information (age, sex, race), how long they have been homeless, and addressed contributory issues, such as drug and alcohol use, and mental and physical disabilities. The survey results showed just under half regularly used drugs or alcohol. Most grew up here or have family connections to the area, and many, at one point, were employed here. While most suffer from depression due to their circumstances, a small percentage have a mental illness, and an even smaller percentage have severe mental illness.

Of the 51 surveyed, there was one family (with two children), six couples (either partners or married), 35 individuals; 63% were male and 37% were female. Survey results were:

• Average age: 39

• Average months homeless (current episode): 26.8

• Alcohol usage: 43%

• Drug usage: 45%

• Chronic medical condition: 35%

• Suffer from PTSD: 27.5%

• Physical disability: 31%

• Recipient of disability benefits: 8%

• Victims of domestic violence: 37%

• Emotional/psychiatric condition (depression, schizophrenia, etc.): 40%

One very visible homeless man is Scot VanPelt, 50. He can be seen regularly walking around town with his two dogs.

“Scot’s a schizophrenic,” Baird explained. “He has an ongoing mental illness, and there just aren’t a lot of resources for people like Scot. I’ve known Scot for a number of years and he is a very thoughtful, generous, and a kind-hearted individual. He often asks how each of my family members are doing by name. When he’s not taking his meds, he goes downhill quickly. Schizophrenics, by definition, aren’t able to delineate between what is real and what isn’t. Because of delusions that torment him, he may say things that aren’t very lucid, become very agitated, loud, often using threatening language, but to my knowledge, he’s never harmed anyone. And overall, his dogs are very well-behaved.”

VanPelt said he’s spent four winters on the streets in Oakhurst. After being injured driving a truck in San Jose, he wound up in Fresno, and ultimately homeless in Oakhurst.

“I live in a tent,” VanPelt said. “I’m trying to get a U-Haul to get back up north because I have four storage units up there. I’m trying to save money, but it’s hard.”

VanPelt said he receives between $800-900 monthly in Social Security, and that it costs him about $20 daily to feed himself and his dogs. He’d like to find housing, but it’s difficult to come up with first, last and deposit, plus a place that will take his pets.

“The underlying problem with homelessness,” Baird continued, “is lack of significant relationships. For a variety of reasons, there’s no one in their lives to help them, maybe it’s because of bad choices where they’ve burned bridges, or maybe family dynamics that, through no fault of their own, home just isn’t a place they can return to. Many have roots here, and that’s why they’re here. Most of them are willing and able to work, and are trying to find entry-level jobs at hotels and fast food. A number of them have been employed seasonally on and off over the last couple of years.”

“But even if they got jobs, they can’t get off the streets making minimum wages” Baird said. “They still can’t put a down payment on an apartment. There are even some working homeless, a small percentage, working 40 hours a week, making minimum wage. Until someone comes along to give these people a break - like saying you can stay here a month or so until you get back on your feet - homelessness will continue.”

Holy Joe or Pastor of the Park has lived in Oakhurst for two years. He said he was homeless for four days last year when his weekly benefits ran out and he couldn’t pay the rent. When he received his settlement, he turned the entire amount over to his landlord, which will carry him into many future months. Four days on the streets was enough for him. He never wants to be homeless again. He now walks around town, sometimes during the day and other times, late at night, holding a tall walking stick with a small cross burned into the wood. His self-proclaimed mission - to help the homeless any way he can.

“I estimate there are 80 or so homeless in Oakhurst,” Holy Joe said. “Some are criminals, some can’t help themselves, and some are veterans. There was a large group living at what they called Capitol Pipe Hill, but once the sheriff chased them off, they scattered to different areas, and are now living between Yosemite National Park and Ahwahnee. Anything with barbed wire fencing and lots of open land will work as a home for them, and everyone protects where they live, including the homeless. A big problem I see is meth. The homeless medicate themselves with it. They have nothing. They have no where to go. And meth helps them forget. Something needs to be done to help them, but who knows when that will happen.”

Douglas Temple, 55, is one of the first area homeless. He has bounced between North Fork and Oakhurst for eight years. Temple spent 28 years in prison, and said he has a home in North Fork, but can’t return there for personal reasons. He lives off Food Stamps, the generosity of the community, and weekly church meals. He said he has an arrangement with one of the churches, to watch over the drop-off area, to keep people from rifling through and walking off with cartfuls of donated items.

Baird is all too aware that there are businesses around town, as well as churches which have attempted to help homeless individuals, and have been burned in the process, sometimes by theft or vandalism.

“Relationships are messy, not just with the homeless,” Baird said. “And when you invest deeply in other people, there’s a strong chance you may get hurt along the line. It’s just a part of life, particularly with this population, who come from difficult backgrounds and lack of relationships. We’ve been burned, but for every three or four we go out on the limb for, maybe one turns around. You just have to decide if it’s a chance worth taking.”

The survey numbers collected in the Mountain Area will be passed on to the Fresno/Madera Continuum of Care, and reported to HUD. Depending on the numbers, HUD can offer a variety of programs or grants for those who are low-income and homeless, such as long-term supportive housing or homeless shelters.

“This is a more significant count than we’ve ever had,” Baird added, “so the possibility of receiving funding for more services, for long-term housing opportunities, for HUD grants is a stronger likelihood. It may not be in the near-term and may be a slow process, but we have to continue to show the need. Even if we had the funding tomorrow for housing, it would take time to find the right spot, somewhere close enough to town where they could walk to work. Most in the community would say ‘not in my backyard,’ so it would take time to show how this could benefit the community.”

It’s a given that community support is imperative if changes are to be made, especially since homelessness seems to be a growing epidemic statewide. A Clovis property manager recently complained that the outside office bathrooms continue to be broken into by the homeless. On a hunch, he lifted the tank to one toilet and discovered 40-50 syringes. With a population topping one million, recent surveys show about 5,000 homeless living within the San Jose city limits. To clear out the “Jungle” a 68-acre site, it took more than three weeks to remove 601 tons of garbage and 315 grocery carts.

“A few have created a bad name for the homeless population in general,” Baird said. “It’s very important for everyone to have one person in their lives with substantial needs, someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they will sleep that night. Investing in that relationship, learning that story - one person at a time - can go a long way.”