The number of homeless people on the coatst has doubled since 2009, mostly due to more people living in vehicles, according to a county report on homelessness.
The findings also show "Half Moon Bay" - encompassing communities from Devil's Slide to just north of Pescadero - to have a disproportionate number of unsheltered homeless people, likely because its open spaces attract people with no place else to go.
The 2011 San Mateo County Homeless Census and Survey released last week provides important information for community leaders, county officials and the state and federal agencies writing checks for regional homelessness programs.
Total unsheltered homeless people on the coast rose from 19 in 2009 to 41 this year, with the number of homeless found on streets and in encampments increasing only slightly.
"In light of the economic situation and the rise of unemployment, I think we've done a good job in terms of holding our own," said the county's Center on Homelessness Manager Wendy Goldberg. County efforts have helped more than 300 families stay in their homes, she added.
In most ways, Coas tside homeless patterns mirror the county, which totals 2,149 homeless people. However, the area's open spaces attract homeless who want to stay out of sight.
"It's pretty hard to be homeless on city streets, but, in an area where they have a lot of open space, it's easy to find places where they won't be bothered by anyone," said San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley. The "out of sight, out of mind" factor makes it especially important to do outreach, he said.
The majority of homeless are unemployed but most, with some exceptions, want to work, Horsley said. They face great disadvantages with no formal shelter or place to clean themselves up. Also, Horsley added, about 80 percent of homeless people have some kind of disability or chronic health problem.
This year, on the coast, there were 16 people counted on the street, up from 14 in 2009. The counters found five people in encampments, up from three people in 2009. Five people were found in cars and 15 in vans and RVs, accounting for nearly half of the homeless people on the coast.
Though it can be hard to distinguish whether people simply choose to live in RVs outside of trailer parks, Goldberg said she wants to assess the needs of this population and figure out if they consider themselves homeless.
"I don't think we can plan effectively until we know more about this (population)," she said.
The county can't explain the larger numbers of people living in vehicles, but the report notes it could have to do with better information available to those conducting the study about where to find homeless people. Still, the counters can't access people living in cars and storage units on private property, something long reported in Coastside communities like Princeton.
The county has adapted to such limitations in the count and this year recruited more volunteers, including homeless people familiar with the locations, to help during the early morning homeless count and the survey component.
The volunteers and county workers who dispersed in late January for the early-morning count found 13 homeless people and 16 lived-in automobiles and encampments locally. Those numbers were augmented by further information on local homeless populations. Since the single-day count amounts to a snapshot of homelessness, the county's Center on Homelessness, which administers the study, incorporated data from the count with information from a county shelter and survey data that homeless people conducted on their peers. Together, the pieces form the in-depth report released every two years.
"When we were going through homeless encampments, it was pretty clear people had been there," said Horsley, who participated in the count. The approach, he said, is basically a "catch as catch can" since the homeless population seems to shift around the coast.
"It's very difficult to say year-to-year that (homelessness) has increased. It could be that we've gotten better at finding them," he said.
The data serves two purposes. It's used to leverage federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for homeless shelters in San Mateo County. In 2009, the 1,796 sheltered and unsheltered homeless observed on San Mateo County drew $5.7 million in federal funding. The data also supports the county's overall goal outlined in the Housing Our People Effectively plan, which is trying to end homelessness in the county within 10 years.
County officials attribute the decrease in unsheltered families throughout the county (two families this year), to voucher systems and other county efforts.
Currently, Horsley is working to decrease the amount of homeless in Princeton. San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, child services and environmental health are joining together to sweep through Princeton to find and assist people who are living there.