Drones, he­li­copters, ther­mal imag­ing ex­pected to boost ac­cu­racy in this year’s home­less count

The Modesto Bee - - News - BY GARY WARTH

This year, when vol­un­teers comb the re­gion to count and in­ter­view San Diego’s home­less pop­u­la­tion, they’ll have a bit of high-tech help.

Or­ga­niz­ers of the an­nual Point-in-Time Count will use in­frared tech­nol­ogy on drones and he­li­copters to help them lo­cate peo­ple liv­ing in canyons and other ar­eas were they might be harder to find.

The idea is that those im­ages, and other changes planned for the Jan. 25 event, could pro­vide more use­ful and ac­cu­rate re­sults.

The count, con­ducted by the San Diego Re­gional Task Force on the Home­less as a fund­ing re­quire­ment by the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban Devel­op­ment, is chal­leng­ing on many lev­els. It’s done in pre-dawn hours, when peo­ple are most likely to be asleep, in an at­tempt to make them eas­ier to count, but in­evitably some peo­ple are missed.

Task force CEO Tam­era Kohler said sev­eral steps are be­ing taken this year in an ef­fort to count more peo­ple and gather more de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion.

There was some con­fu­sion and a lit­tle con­tro­versy with last year’s count. While the of­fi­cial re­port of 8,576 home­less peo­ple rep­re­sented a 6 per­cent drop from last year, the count did not in­clude at least 300 peo­ple who were stay­ing at the San Diego Res­cue Mis­sion, which did not file its pa­per­work in time.

Vol­un­teers also did not count peo­ple who live in recre­ational ve­hi­cles last year, although some were counted in past years.

The Jan­uary count will in­clude RVs as well as many peo­ple who have been missed in the past be­cause they live in canyons and other places out of sight of vol­un­teers.

Tak­ing a cue from Las Ve­gas, San Diego will use over­head ther­mal imag­ing de­vices that can lo­cate peo­ple in the dark by de­tect­ing their heat.

The San Diego Po­lice Depart­ment will fly a he­li­copter equipped with ther­mal imag­ing equip­ment over cen­tral ar­eas of the city and the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment will fly a he­li­copter with the de­vices over Lake­side.

The Chula Vista Po­lice Depart­ment also will use ther­mog­ra­phy to find peo­ple, but will fly a drone in­stead of a he­li­copter.

Sher­iff’s Lt. Fran Pas­salac­qua said the flights over Lake­side could find home­less peo­ple who have gone un­counted in past years.

“We thought this was a great op­por­tu­nity,” she said.

Pas­salac­qua said the largest num­ber of home­less peo­ple in Lake­side are along the San Diego River near state Route 67 near Maple­view Street and at the end of Vine Street. A he­li­copter is sched­uled to fly over­head be­fore sun­rise Jan. 25 to lo­cate peo­ple in the area.

The he­li­copter crew then will phone the vol­un­teers do­ing the count to di­rect them to where peo­ple were de­tected, she said. For safety rea­sons, crews will wait un­til sun­rise be­fore walk­ing into the brush to in­ter­view peo­ple in en­camp­ments.

Pas­salac­qua said a more ac­cu­rate count could mean more money for home­less ser­vices in East County.

“The east re­gion is se­verely lack­ing in re­sources for those who are home­less,” she said. “If we don’t get an ac­cu­rate count, how can we get re­sources? We do not have any shel­ters. We don’t have a Father Joe’s or Al­pha Project.”

San Diego County has the fourth largest home­less pop­u­la­tion in the na­tion but of­ten is ranked 20th in fund­ing from HUD.

Last year’s coun­ty­wide count found about 5,000 home­less peo­ple out­doors or in ve­hi­cles and about 3,600 in shel­ters.

So far more than 700 peo­ple have vol­un­teered to par­tic­i­pate in this year’s count by reg­is­ter­ing at rtfh.vol­un­teer­hub.com. Vol­un­teers also must par­tic­i­pate in a one-hour on­line train­ing ses­sion.

HUD has pushed the task force to col­lect more in­for­ma­tion from home­less peo­ple, and 11 con­tracted work­ers from the fed­eral agency have been in San Diego since Tues­day to help pre­pare for the count.

The most sig­nif­i­cant change in this year’s count will be an in­creased ef­fort to gather de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion from more home­less peo­ple through a 21-ques­tion sur­vey. Peo­ple will be asked about their race, health, the rea­sons why they be­came home­less and for how long, whether they are a vet­eran, have a sub­stance abuse prob­lem and other ques­tions.

THE COUNT IS DONE IN PRE-DAWN HOURS, WHEN PEO­PLE ARE MOST LIKELY TO BE ASLEEP, IN AN AT­TEMPT TO MAKE THEM EAS­IER TO COUNT, BUT IN­EVITABLY SOME PEO­PLE ARE MISSED.

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