Vateas Watkins isn't just a statistic.
She said she recently lost an office job at AT&T in the Los Angeles area. She said her Lancaster home was foreclosed on after her unemployment benefits ran out. She's a mother raising two children. She's pregnant.
Watkins, 42, is also homeless.
A resident at the Bakersfield Homeless Center for the last five months, Watkins was one of scores of people counted Wednesday evening as part of a point-in-time census of the county's homeless population.
The survey, conducted by the Kern County Homeless Collaborative every two years, helps the region in securing federal funding to fight homelessness. It also gives people like Watkins a chance to share their stories.
"It shows me that people do care," Watkins said. "The homeless tend to be forgotten."
The 24-hour count began at area homeless shelters Wednesday night and continues today throughout the county.
Preliminary results are expected to be available to the public within a month, census coordinator Jim Wheeler said. Additional data should be available by early spring.
"It gives us a snapshot of homelessness in Kern County," Wheeler said. "We have the big picture, but sometimes we forget what it looks like."
Out in the field
The biennial census is an important aspect of the fight against homelessness, but it's also one of the most difficult.
"We're never gonna get everybody," Wheeler said. "But we strive to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible."
Some of the 180 trained volunteers conducted interviews with shelter residents Wednesday night.
Others will be dispersed in teams of three today to search for homeless people and log their backgrounds through anonymous surveys.
The counters try to find out how long they've been homeless, whether they have families and whether they have been hospitalized or incarcerated. The volunteers also inquire about military involvement.
"It helps us to identify where the needs are, where the gaps in service are," Wheeler said. "If there are populations being ignored, we can design programs to meet their needs."
Hygiene kits, bottled water, snacks and informational pamphlets will be distributed during the count, Wheeler said. The Bakersfield Rescue Mission is being used as census headquarters.
"Most people, when they understand what the purpose is, they're usually cooperative," Wheeler said.
That seemed to be the case Wednesday at the East Truxtun Avenue facility, where volunteer Cal State Bakersfield nursing students sat down with scores of residents to record their information.
Rozella Hall, 51, who has been staying at the homeless center for about a month, beamed after sharing that she landed a job hours earlier as a sign holder for Liberty Tax Service.
"It was painless," she said of the census interview.
Billie Rene White, a 41-year-old Dallas native who has lived at the shelter for less than a month, said she's grateful for its housing and medical resources. She didn't seem to mind taking part in the survey.
"When you're asking for information, it's out of concern," she said.
Sarah Brannstrom, one of the CSUB volunteers, said going through the questionnaire with people at the homeless center was a powerful experience.
"You gain a new perspective," she said. "It opens your eyes."
For Robin Rodriguez, 38, the census was like a formal accompaniment to the discussions that take place at the homeless center every day.
"We're also curious about how people get homeless," said Rodriguez, who has spent time in shelters across the state. "You talk to other people, and your story might be in there somewhere."
By the numbers
Volunteers tallied 1,499 homeless people in Kern County during the previous count in January 2009, down slightly from the 1,537 reported two years earlier.
More than half of them were unsheltered, at least 300 were considered chronically homeless and approximately 150 were counted as children. About 90 percent of the people counted are located in the Bakersfield area, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said organizers expect the struggling job and housing markets to create a jump in this year's tally.
"We're really curious to see how the economy has impacted homelessness," he said.
Nearly 672,000 homeless people were counted during a nationwide point-in-time tally in January 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
About 1.6 million people used emergency or transitional shelters during a 12-month period ending that year.
In California, more than 159,000 homeless people -- including 29,400 veterans -- were counted in 2007, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That figure dropped slightly to 157,277 the next year.
Based on several studies, the collaborative estimates that the county spends between $40,000 and $50,000 per homeless person per year on services.
Law enforcement responses involving the chronically homeless population in Bakersfield was more than $123,000 in 2005, according to the collaborative.
During a recent study of 151 chronically homeless people in the region, the county's mental health department determined those people spent 2,072 days incarcerated and 1,397 days in hospitals during a 12-month period. Costs to the county for those services topped $1.5 million.
Beyond the count
The census is a small part of a broader and more sustained effort to fight homelessness.
The homeless collaborative is made up of members from local shelters, nonprofit groups, the county mental health and housing departments and Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall.
Throughout the year, officials track the extent to which homeless people use shelters and other services in the county. More than 3,000 people sought basic homeless services over the last year, Wheeler said.
That information, collected and organized by the federal government through a standardized system, is used to allocate money to fight homelessness.
The county can receive as much as $3.5 million annually through HUD grants for transitional housing and other programs.
The collaborative, which holds monthly meetings, applied for federal housing grants in November and expects to be notified of any awards within the next few months, Wheeler said.
Kern has received federal funding to fight homelessness for many years, including roughly $2.3 million in 2009 for permanent residential spaces.
In addition, Wheeler said, stimulus funding supported local homeless prevention through a re-housing program.
Still, the collaborative strives to create even more transitional and permanent housing to reduce homelessness in the county, Wheeler said. Those efforts are part of Hall's 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in Kern County.
"Our goal has really morphed from providing services to providing housing," he said.
Watkins, the expectant mother, has goals of her own. She hopes to find a job and housing outside the homeless shelter. She wants to provide a stable life for the baby.
And, perhaps most of all, she doesn't want to be a statistic in the census two years from now.
"I have a new respect for the homeless," Watkins said. "I understand why they panhandle, why they recycle.
"I'm just so ready to go, to get my independence back, to sufficiently take care of my family again."