SANTA CRUZ — Workers in a homeless census fanned out in the predawn light on Tuesday, tallying the homeless on the streets and in hidden campsites across Santa Cruz County.

The biannual census tries to provide a snapshot of the number of homeless in the county so programs and services can be geared toward them. The federal government requires the census for homeless service groups to be eligible for federal money.

This year, for the first time, census participants were asked to estimate age groups in three categories: 17 and younger, 18 to 25, and 26 and older.

"We're trying to get everyone out on the streets," said Susan Brutschy, president of Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research, which conducts the study.

Full results of the census are expected to be released in the spring. In the 2011 homeless census, about 2,700 homeless were counted in the county, down from approximately 3,370 homeless in 2005.

Workers in Tuesday's census met at the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street in Santa Cruz — as well as in Watsonville, Felton and Aptos. Groups typically included a volunteer and a guide who was homeless to help find sites with which they were familiar.

The groups were assigned areas and given maps before they headed out in cars.

Because there were fewer volunteers and workers — about 50 — this year than in previous censuses, some groups were assigned two areas to cover before 10 a.m. Guides were paid $10 an hour.


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A 50-year-old homeless woman was paired as a guide with Cheryl Ruby, a counselor at the River Street Shelter in Santa Cruz.

In the 39-degree morning, the two women peered into wooded areas such as the greenbelt between Highway 1 and Plymouth Street in Santa Cruz. They recognized people they knew who lived on the streets and rode bikes or carried sleeping bags.

"To count the ones camping, you have to be up at 6 a.m. because they're up," the woman said. She didn't want her name used because she has camped illegally.

Ruby and her guide counted about 30 homeless men and two women in their area by about 9:30 a.m. Another group that went to downtown Santa Cruz counted about 150 homeless.

Outside a fast-food restaurant, doughnut shop and gas station on Ocean Street, they spotted homeless men headed to an 8 a.m. breakfast provided by the Homeless Services Center on Coral Street.

Census workers were told not to talk to their subjects or to rouse them if they were asleep. Safety was the first priority, Brutschy said.

"This is an observational count," she said. "And we have a lot of ground to cover."

The woman who acted as the guide said she understood why city and Santa Cruz County law enforcement had recently cleaned up the camps.

"I can see why the city's upset because they leave garbage everywhere," the homeless woman said. "I don't leave garbage."

The woman added that she recently stayed at a shelter and worked in its laundry room — but she was still finding her way. Finding a shower, clean clothes and transportation to appointments are daily challenges.

"It's hard to get a job when you're homeless," she said.