A group of strangers helped count Modesto’s homeless. Here’s what it found
Four strangers hopped into a silver Chevy Trailblazer at 8 a.m. Thursday and headed west.
Their destination was a strip mall off North Carpenter Road and Highway 132. Tiffany Ornells sat shotgun, wearing a blue coat, gloves and sunglasses. She was ready to spend hours walking in the cold. Sitting in the back seats, Matt Orante and Linnea Worthy bonded over their dogs.
“I guess this is our spot, huh?” said Jeremy Howell, the day’s leader, as he parked his vehicle. “Did you say you saw someone somewhere?” he asked Orante as they all stepped out and organized their backpacks, each with socks, toiletries, water, snacks and a list of local resources. The gear, known as comfort kits, would make their work a bit easier.
“Not recently, but I’ve seen people before if you go behind the shopping center,” answered Orante. Worthy chimed in: “They like to go behind the businesses a lot.”
The group’s task was to find and survey the homeless population within an assigned few blocks of Modesto, a kind of humanitarian Where’s Waldo?
Known as the annual point-in-time count, it’s a federally mandated process that provides a snapshot of the number of unsheltered homeless people on a given January night. The final report helps determine how much federal money for homelessness the region will receive.
On Thursday, roughly 150 volunteers spread out across Modesto to take the count, said community development manager Jessica Hill. Organizers divided the city into 36 zones to make the survey easier for volunteers and more accurate. Additional volunteers simultaneously counted other parts of Stanislaus County. The comfort kits help to entice people to fill out the surveys and double as thank-you gifts.
“I have a home, I just can’t go to it”
Worthy and Howell had volunteered before, and though Orante and Ornells were new, they didn’t shy from approaching strangers on the street. The challenge was finding people. Unlike downtown Modesto or along the Tuolumne River near the airport, where homeless encampments are conspicuous, the strip mall had no tents in sight.
As the volunteers with their comfort kits walked the perimeter of the empty parking lot of CVS and Harbor Freight Tools toward the alley behind the businesses, a white sedan pulled up and a friendly woman rolled down her window.
“Hi, friends!” she said. She was part of another point-in-time volunteer group. “I don’t think you’re going to find many over here. It’s not the greatest area,” she said before wishing them luck and driving away. Ornells suggested they pivot and walk another block over to Charles M. Sharpe Park. The others agreed.
They split up at the park, the men walking one way and the women another. An older man with white hair walked toward the park bathrooms with his dog, carrying a chain of keys and a staff topped with a skull decoration. Both Ornells and Worthy assumed he was the park security or just walking his dog.
“I’m not homeless,” he said as they approached him, “but I had it in with my girlfriend and now I’m sleeping in my truck.”
As Ornells started the interview, more details emerged. David Turner was born in 1942 and served in Vietnam. He got into a fight with his girlfriend last spring, and now he’s homeless for the first time, living in a red Ford F-150.
“I have a home, I just can’t go to it,” he explained to Ornells, who was listening with no hint of judgment.
Turner mentioned that his new girlfriend, Beverly Chatman, was sleeping in his truck with him. Worthy used the cue and asked the other volunteers to find Chatman while Ornells continued to interview Davis.
The volunteers took roughly 30 minutes interviewing Chatman and Davis, pausing the survey to listen to stories the couple told or, in Ornells’ case, to offer a few suggestions about local homeless services they should contact. They handed out two comfort kits and left.
“I assumed he was just there walking his dog because his car wasn’t what a typical homeless car would look like — you know, full of stuff,” said Ornells, as the team headed back to the strip mall on Carpenter Road.
Is the point-in-time count “severely flawed?”
By 9:30 a.m., the parking lot was busier. Orante spotted a Latino woman in her mid-30s wrapped in a blanket and walking down the street, talking to herself. She declined to participate in the survey. Orante still had to count her, however, so he jotted down details about her location and appearance into the app that volunteers used for the survey.
Howell approached a man pushing a shopping cart. The man kept his head down but answered every question.
Adolfo Jimenez was on his bike by the gas station on Carpenter Road near the Home Depot when Ornells spotted him. He talked about his experience in the juvenile justice system and jail after he and his parents started fighting about his marijuana use. He said he wants to resume working in restaurants, where he has experience as a line and prep cook.
By 2:30 p.m., the volunteers had surveyed 16 people, though nine people declined to answer any questions.
Last year, the point-in-time count found 1,857 people. Almost half were counted outside of a shelter and the vast majority were located in Modesto.
Early estimates suggest this year’s count will surpass 2,000, said Ronald Reid, Stanislaus County point-in-time coordinator.
But those figures are imprecise. A 2017 study from the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty called the federally mandated point-in-time count “severely flawed.” The process fails to consider the nature of homelessness, which can vary from day to day or month to month, and misses people who are “not visible,” the study said. Such individuals may couch surf with friends, stay at hotels, be in jail or simply not appear to be homeless.
In 2017, for example, Houston added the number of people in county jails who said they were homeless before they were arrested. The total point-in-time tally jumped by 57%.
While Stanislaus County doesn’t include those who spend the night in jail, Hill highlighted another data source called the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which tracks the number of people who interact with homelessness services. The county did not provide exact data on recent HMIS reports, but Hill said one recent year estimated the total number of homeless “in the five thousands.”
Since volunteers started using an app in 2022 instead of paper forms, Reid said the point-in-time data has become more accurate. Glitches happen – this year, the geo-tag on the app listed the location of a few homeless people as Paris, France – but county and city officials comb through the data for errors before releasing it.
Howell, Ornells, Worthy and Orante surveyed more homeless people than city organizers had expected from that particular region of Modesto. Hill said that may be due to the weather, because Thursday was a nicer day than last year, meaning more people were outside.
Howell suggested it was luck. Early in the morning, the team of volunteers passed by an RV with no one outside it and no way to glimpse into the windows to see if someone was sleeping. Later in the afternoon, when the group was wrapping up, it ran into six people around the RV, all of whom were homeless.