The air was cold and the sky full of stars just before dawn Tuesday as a handful of volunteers walked the streets near Santa Barbara City College with flashlights and clipboards.
Partially hidden between the large, raised roots of a tree near the college softball fields in Pershing Park, the group found what they were searching for.
“Good morning!” said Kristen Tippelt, a social worker with Peoples’ Self-Help Housing and team leader of the group of volunteers out early to count area homeless.
The two-day count is a biannual effort organized by Common Ground Santa Barbara County to survey the homeless throughout the county using the Vulnerability Index and the Point-in-Time Count to find out how many people are on the streets and who is most in need of help.
Tippelt and the others in her group — Kevin Welsh and Westmont College juniors Stephen Avila and Tanya Ayala — arrived by 4:30 a.m. at the Louise Lowry Davis Center, one of seven meeting locations from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria.
This year’s team of volunteers may be the largest yet, according to Emily Allen, a lawyer who supervises volunteers doing homeless outreach. She said volunteers will be surveying at warming centers and shelters for the count that continues Wednesday.
The last estimate showed about 560 people countywide, compared with 500 last year, she said.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Tippelt’s group found themselves listening to David Taylor, a man in his 40s who had been living in an apartment until recently when his roommate kicked him out.
Huddled under a blanket, Taylor answered a series of questions about medical history, how long he’s been on the street and how he ended up there.
He didn’t know his birthday, had no Social Security number, phone or mailing address. He had only a bike and cart to collect cans, his sole source of income.
“My hands are hurt. They’re infected,” Taylor said, explaining that he had been attacked recently.
After thanking Taylor for participating, Tippelt handed him a $5 gift card to Subway, socks and a granola bar.
Just outside the park’s women’s bathroom, a man and woman in their 30s had similar answers.
A theme of drugs, alcohol, anxiety and depression plagued the half-dozen homeless the group spotted.
“Once it gets light out, they move,” Tippelt said, hoping to find more homeless Wednesday.
Welsh said this was his second year volunteering, and the first in which his 10th-grader son at San Marcos High School was participating.
“I have a good life,” Welsh said. “It’s good to give back to the community. It’s a problem, especially it seems in Santa Barbara. Let’s see what we can do.”
Group members returned to their meeting locations for debriefing, and then headed off to work or class knowing they’d soon return.
“It’s really eye-opening, seeing homelessness in a different light,” Ayala said. “For me, it’s really important.”