MODESTO -- Mary Riddley spent much of the past six years homeless, sleeping in César Chávez park in west Modesto or crashing at a shelter.
That's when she wasn't behind bars. Riddley spent 16 months in prison for stealing a bottle of peppermint schnapps from the downtown Save Mart. She was arrested more than 100 times over 30 years for drunken driving, shoplifting, stealing and fighting.
But that's the past.
Riddley has been clean and sober for more than 22 months and has been living in an apartment provided by a nonprofit agency since Jan. 16. She receives counseling, case management and other services to help get her life back on track.
On Thursday, dozens of volunteers fanned out across Stanislaus County to count and interview the homeless, part of an effort to provide the kind of support Riddley is getting and help them off the streets.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires nonprofits, social service providers and government agencies that apply for its homeless grants to conduct a count in the final days of January every other year.
The Stanislaus Housing & Support Services Collaborative is conducting the local count. The group was formed in 1997 and includes the county's major nonprofits, county government, the Housing Authority, and the cities of Turlock and Modesto.
Collaborative members have received about $40 million in HUD funding over the years to provide the homeless with transitional and permanent housing and supportive services.
The volunteers visited more than two dozen locations where the homeless gather in Modesto, Ceres, Turlock, Patterson, Newman, Oak- dale and Riverbank. On Wednesday night, The Salvation Army, the Modesto Gospel Mission and other agencies that provide emergency shelter counted their homeless.
Previous biennial counts have turned up as many as 1,800 homeless people. But these tallies, which HUD calls "point-in-time counts," are one-day snapshots and don't include all of Stanislaus County's homeless.
28 questions to answer
The counts do, however, produce valuable information. Armed with clipboards and questionnaires, volunteers asked the homeless 28 questions, including how long they have been homeless, whether they have served in the miliary, their age and the reasons for their homelessness.
This information helps collaborative members better target their services. A family with children that has been homeless for a few months has different problems than a man who has been in prison and homeless for years.
There are more than humanitarian reasons to help the homeless.
It's cheaper to provide housing and services to help the homeless deal with their substance abuse, mental health and other issues than to let them fend for themselves.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has said it costs a community about $40,000 annually for a homeless person to be on the streets. That includes the costs associated with providing emergency shelter, hospital emergency room care, and arresting and booking someone at jail.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said it costs about $92 a day to house one inmate at the county's Public Safety Center; that's more than $33,000 for a year in jail. The sheriff said it costs about $47,000 to house an inmate for one year in state prison.
There are other costs associated with the homeless. They can become a public nuisance because of aggressive panhandling, fighting with one another and being drunk in public. And they may steal and shoplift to support their drug and alcohol addictions.
Stability is cost-effective
By comparison, the cost of caring for Riddley is a bargain.
She is living in a two-bedroom apartment at Courtney Manor, which is owned and operated by the Stanislaus County Affordable Housing Corp. The complex has 19 two-bedroom apartments and houses formerly homeless people with mental disabilities.
It costs STANCO about $420 a month to house Riddley. Just like the other tenants, she is required to pay 30 percent of any income she has toward rent and utilities.
She receives counseling and other services through Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. Those services cost the county agency about $600 a month. Riddley, who is disabled and unemployed, also gets food stamps.
"When you are looking at what is cost-effective, people are getting the help they need and they are being housed instead of being out in the street," said Pam Esparza, a manger with Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the president of the Stanislaus Housing & Support Services Collaborative.
"They are not dying," she continued. "They are safe, and they are not a quality-of-life issue."
Riddley said she got sober while in prison. When she was released in June, she knew she did not want to go back to the streets. She had been staying at the Modesto Gospel Mission before being placed in an apartment this month.
Riddley suspected she had deeper problems than drugs and alcohol.
"There were just too many ups and downs in my life over nothing," she said. "My whole life I would start fights. I would pick arguments. I would take it to the extreme."
Riddley now takes one pill in the morning and two pills at night to help with her anxiety, mood disorder and other mental health issues. She also goes to meetings to stay sober, attends group counseling and meets with her case manager.
She's in a transitional housing program, where she can stay for as long as two years so long as she works toward becoming self-sufficient.
"I'm 52 years old and and I want to live," Riddley said. "I want to live some kind of normal life."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.