Melinda Ramirez was one of about 40 people who fanned out across Tracy before sunrise Monday in an effort to take a census of homeless people — some of whom she knew quite well.
“It’s what I’m studying in school and it’s my life. I used to be homeless,” she said after interviewing a group of people in Lincoln Park.
Ramirez is the mother of four boys and is taking her last semester of classes through California State University, Chico to get her sociology degree. That may seem remarkable to some because on April 6, 2016, she and her family were burned out of their apartment building on Eighth Street — the Marguerite Apartments.
“We lost our house. We lost our IDs. We lost everything,” she said. “Lost my job three weeks after the fire, and with four boys, we had to camp out for that whole summer until we got into Housing Authority, thank God.”
Ramirez took part in the countywide point-in-time count of the unsheltered homeless population. In Tracy, that effort Monday was organized by the Tracy Community Connections Center.
“We go out and we go to where hopefully we’ll be able to find the homeless and take surveys,” said Stephen Thompson, center board member and chief operations officer. “Because the whole idea is to gather all that information so that it can be put towards federal funding.”
The county divvies up money it gets from the state — which gets funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development — based upon the number of homeless people reported in each city.
Thompson said Tracy Community Connections Center could use money to hire case managers who would help homeless women and men find resources and a path off the streets.
“That is critical because, when you’re working with people, you don’t want to just give them a number and say ‘bye-bye,’” Thompson said. “You want to be able to provide them with resources, make calls for them. Ultimately they have to take charge, take responsibility. But we’re here to help them with that.”
Ramirez knows that only too well.
“I remember being in that position and not knowing what to do or where to go,” she said. “Ninety percent of them need help — they don’t have any support network. That’s the key. They don’t have anyone to help them or show them — remind them to pay their bills on time or show them how to pay their bills. How many of them die or get so sick and end up in the ER because they don’t know they can go to the doctor and get preventative care?”
Ramirez knows that some people in Tracy see the homeless negatively and just want them to go away. She recalled a story from her time working with Emerson House in Tracy, a place for transitional housing for men.
“One guy, his wife died from cancer. He went through all of his retirement taking care of her and that’s how he ended up homeless,” she said. “I think that they just need to realize that not everyone is a criminal and on drugs. Each one has their own story and it could happen to anyone. Imagine if you lost your job and you didn’t have a family or didn’t have anyone to turn to. It could happen to anyone.”
She and the other volunteers, joined by members of the Tracy Police Department and the city’s code enforcement division, spent Monday visiting 30 different spots where homeless people were known to be, asking 15 questions of each person they found. Among the questions: how long they had been homeless; whether they had ever been treated for a mental health problem; whether they had any income at all; and whether they had served in the military.
The Tracy Community Connections Center is trying to leverage trust it and others have established with the homeless community through monthly visits with Operation Helping Hands — a partnership of police officers, county health officers and representatives of charitable organizations who go to encampments to offer services to the people they find there.
“It’s not an easy task. A lot of it comes around a trust factor. Because they are a community that doesn’t have a lot of trust in the system and the people in the system. And even among themselves,” Thompson said. “They may not want that help today, but it’s up to us to make sure that we’re there tomorrow to provide that help to them.”
In 2015, during the last point-in-time count of the unsheltered homeless in Tracy, 122 adults and 12 children were documented by the survey. While the final number counted Monday won’t be known for months, Ramirez wants everyone to remember one thing:
“Find out their story, you know. They’re human beings. Even prisoners get better treatment than these people.”