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Tallying the homeless

A woman paces outside the King-Kennedy Memorial Center on Modesto's west side clutching a pack of Sonoma cigarettes and a box of Country Choice crackers.

When Anne Robin and Jim Riley see her, they know she is homeless. The dull, expressionless eyes, aimless pace, oily hair, the cracker crumbs and cigarette butts — they're all dead giveaways.

Robin parks her Subaru and slowly walks over to the woman. Riley keeps his distance in order not to spook her, but from 50 yards away he can still see the woman embrace Robin and burst into tears. Robin and the woman, Cornelia, knew each other seven years ago. For Cornelia, it's been a long seven years.

"I don't want to hurt myself anymore," Cornelia sobs into Robin's arms. "I don't want to."

Cornelia throws a glass crack pipe and it shatters on the pavement. She throws a razor blade and pulls up her sleeve. Her wrist is covered in scars and open cuts — deep red lines scabbed over and swollen.

"I don't want to hurt myself," Cornelia says again.

"You've been cutting?" Robin asks.

"I've been cutting, yeah," she says. "I need meds. I need meds. I really need meds. That medicine (crack) is no good for me."

"Do you think you need rehab to get off the crack?" Robin asks.

"I was trying. I was trying," Cornelia sobs. "They told me I don't qualify. I'm tired of not qualifying. I'm so sick of it. Sick! I'm tired of not qualifying."

Riley carefully picks up the razor blade and throws it in a trash can.

Robin and Riley, who work at the Stanislaus Homeless Outreach Program, or SHOP, were among the 90 volunteers counting homeless people across the county Friday. The one-day street count, a requirement for federal funding, happens every two years.

Six mobile teams — including Robin and Riley — checked out riverbanks and reservoirs while 20 collection sites were set up at shelters, soup kitchens, recycling centers and other homeless hot spots.

People they found were asked 25 questions ranging from "What was the last city you lived in before you became homeless?" to "Where will you sleep tonight?" in hopes of helping service providers better understand the homeless population.

Robin has been an administrator with SHOP for six years, after almost 15 years in the mental health field in San Diego; Riley has been a team leader for six years after 10 years in drug and alcohol prevention and mental health with Merced County and 20 years as a drug and alcohol counselor in the Air Force. He also teaches at Merced College.

SHOP is on the front lines of homelessness. Funded by Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act, the program has taken 300 people with severe and chronic mental illness and returned them to the mainstream. But Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposed budget threatens cuts to the mental health act, which essentially taxes the ultrarich to pay for services such as SHOP.

SHOP has teams of outreach workers who look for homeless with chronic and severe mental illnesses every day. Robin and Riley, for the most part, are office-bound, but Friday, because of the homeless count, nearly every county service provider was volunteering. By 6:30 a.m., Robin and Riley were walking through Legion Park, along the Tuolumne River, weaving down overgrown trails and checking public bathrooms.

"Anyone home? Homeless count," Robin says into a dense thicket of wild blackberry bushes.

"Hello, Hello," Riley says. "Anybody home? Homeless count."

The pair duck beneath a low-hanging branch down a well-worn path. Plastic bags and old newspapers litter the ground. Cardboard and old blankets are laid out in the little clearing.

"Someone was here," Riley says.

Half a dozen other campsites look the same — the cardboard, the litter — and also are vacant. An older man walks in the park collecting cans, but he's not homeless, he says, just out trying to make some extra money. A young Latino man is walking alone with headphones. He doesn't want to talk.

The 2005 one-day homeless count tallied more than 1,600 homeless people. Conservative estimates figure that 9,000 people in Stanislaus County are on the street at one point or another in a given year. Despite an increase of services in the past two years, organizers expect to see more people on the street this year because of rocketing housing costs, climbing foreclosure rates and a decline in affordable housing.

Robin and Riley leave Legion Park to find another homeless camp a few miles down the road.

"Out here," Riley says, "it's almost like what came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the guy have a substance abuse problem that induced a mental health problem or did the mental health problem induce substance abuse?"

At the camp, a little two-person tent is set up under a blue tarp and surrounded by plywood.

"There are two people in that little camp there, but they don't want to come out," Robin says.

She leaves two "goodie bags" near the tent door and goes to check on an old Ford truck parked down the road. The goodie bags — filled with bottled water, snacks, shampoo and soap — are a peace offering of sorts. For many homeless, anyone from mainstream society is suspect.

As Robin and Riley get ready to leave, James comes out of the tent. He's 26 years old and has been homeless on-and-off since he was 18.

"My dad beat me, dude," he says. "I couldn't take it no more."

Robin reads through the questionnaire and James answers each question. His arm is stiff and he doesn't use his left hand.

"I was fishing over there," he said, pointing to the Tuolumne River. "I slipped on a rock and fell on my bait knife. Twenty-six stitches on the muscle, 16 on ligament, five on the outside."

He lifts up his sweat shirt to show the thick white bandage.

For food, cigarettes and "a little bud" money, James scraps metal with a friend. He said the hardest part of life on the street is finding work on a regular basis. Asked what he could do to get off the street, he says:

"If I got the balls to beat up my own dad, you know what I mean, to earn his respect, I could get back in the house," he says. "But why should I have to do that? Why should anyone fight their own dad?"

Riley hands him his business card. Later that day, he and Robin will return and give James bus passes to get back and forth to the hospital. Robin will work to get him antibiotics for his arm.

"I've been in mental health for 25 years," Robin says. "This is the first time, with this (Proposition 63) money, we can spend money doing that practical stuff that really makes people live better. The real value of this work is you don't take a person and just treat their brain. You treat their whole body, their whole life situation."

Robin and Riley drive to Modesto's west side and walk a Modesto Irrigation District canal off California Avenue. Not finding anyone, they backtrack toward Mellis Park, where they find Cornelia near the King-Kennedy Memorial Center.

Robin first met her in 2000 after Cornelia's first mental breakdown. That year, Robin says, Cornelia lost her job as an ironworker because of carpal tunnel syndrome and both of her parents died. Then, that October, her brother died of a heroin overdose. Before 2000, Cornelia, now 40, was successfully managing her bipolar disorder. When she began to lose it, she met Robin.

"I was the one who said, 'Cornelia is smart, she doesn't need intensive services, she can find her way,'" Robin says. "I hadn't put my eyes on her in five years, but other people have talked to her. But now, that's not the Cornelia I knew. In five short years, she's a whole different lady."

Riley makes a call to find Cornelia a bed, but he won't know where she can go for sure until noon, he says.

Robin walks Cornelia down Martin Luther King Drive to Vine House Ministries, where a Bible study has started. Robin promises her, this time, Cornelia qualifies.

"Somebody sent us over here to find you," Robin tells her.

"God! God loves me so much. God loves me so much! God loves me!" Cornelia yells in the King-Kennedy Memorial Center parking lot. "He loves me. He loves me for a reason."

Cheryl Van Horn, director of Vine House, brings Cornelia into the front room where half a dozen people are sitting in a circle holding their Bibles. Cornelia hugs Robin and says goodbye.

"It's not going to be me, but someone is going to pick you up at noon," Robin says.

"OK," Cornelia says. "Thank you. Thank you."

Outside, on the steps of Vine House, Robin regroups. The day isn't half over. Van Horn comes out.

"Don't stress with (Cornelia)," she says. "It's a revolving door. We get her in a place and she bails."

After another check of the canal and an interview with two homeless Latino men — Robin speaks Spanish — they take lunch.

Robin meets up with Stanislaus County Housing and Support Services Collaborative President Michelle Gonzalez. The collborative organized the homeless count. At 1 p.m., Gonzalez is interviewing people in the lunch line at The Salvation Army on I Street in Modesto.

Official numbers on the count won't be ready for a couple of weeks, but anecdotal evidence abounds — some met a man who was incarcerated for 43 years, so now he doesn't like walls; a group on Crows Landing Road collected 30 interviews touring abandoned buildings and construction sites.

By early evening, all the volunteers are in and ready for a long, slow weekend.

On Saturday, Robin says Cornelia is at the Turning Point Garden Gate Respite Center on Fifth Street in Modesto — a six-bed holding facility for the mentally ill awaiting long-term treatment. A Behavioral Health emergency services examine determined she didn't need immediate hospitalization.

Monday, "we'll do all the assessments and get her ready to go into the dual diagnosis drug-alcohol and mental health program at Stanislaus Recovery Center," Robin says. "After that, we'll see where she's at and try to get her into some clean and sober housing."