SAN JOSE -- Teresa Nava walks the local creek banks, underpasses and open spaces, seeking out the homeless. She comes bearing hygiene packets and an offer to help get them into permanent shelter.

Sometimes she will hear: You don't know what it's like. But Nava does know.

She spent 11 years on San Jose streets, beginning at just age 13, before deciding she wanted a roof over her head. Now, as a member of the EHC LifeBuilders outreach team, she tries to persuade others to come in from the cold.

"I always tell people, 'Hey, if I can do it, you can do it,' " said Nava, 29.

Outreach workers are on the front lines of Santa Clara County's homeless problem -- which has become a hot-button issue as encampments appear to have grown, or at least have become harder to ignore.

Last year, there was a temporary halt to the cleanups of these makeshift communities as legal issues associated with cataloging personal possessions were sorted out. That resulted in an increase of unsightly trash along waterways, where most of the encampments are located, and even more complaints from frustrated residents.

What isn't clear is if more people are living outside in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. But officials should have a better idea after the 2013 Santa Clara County Homeless Census is conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, when volunteers do a visual count.

The census, a joint project of the city of San Jose and the county, is required for federal funding and done every two years. In 2011, the survey found that just more than 7,000 people were homeless on any given night in the county, with an annual total of more than 18,000. Of that figure, about 2,500 were categorized as being chronically homeless.

"Because we've greatly decreased the cleanups, people have been staying in one place longer, accumulating more stuff," said Jessica Scheiner, a special program manager in the city's Housing Department. "So we might have more folks or maybe the people out there are just more visible. This will give us a better handle on who is living in the encampments."

The goal of the stepped-up outreach efforts is that eventually there will be fewer people to count. This fiscal year, the city has earmarked nearly $1.4 million, contracting with nonprofit organizations EHC LifeBuilders, the Bill Wilson Center, InnVision Shelter Network and Downtown Streets Team.

Advocates say the money is well-spent because it's more cost-effective to house the homeless rather than have them tying up public services like police calls and emergency room visits, and it also limits environmental problems in the creeks.

For instance, when the encampment cleanups resumed last year, it was costing the city and Santa Clara Valley Water District about $20,000 each day.

"Unfortunately the money spent on cleanups just moves the problem around," said Vanessa Beretta, outreach coordinator for EHC LifeBuilders. "It's wiser to spend the money on encouraging them to get out of the camps so they don't go back. People think that anyone out there doesn't want help. The reality is they often do, but you have to build their trust."

That is Nava's role. She's one of four peer outreach workers at EHC LifeBuilders -- former homeless who return to encampments, making connections and providing assistance such as rides to medical care and contacts with alcohol- and substance-abuse programs.

"We've made big breakthroughs, getting people into a good, safe places," Nava said. "Nobody wants to be told what to do with their life. But if it becomes a relationship, they might listen to you. Everyone has a story."

Nava's story includes a mother with mental-health issues and growing up in foster care. By 13, she had run away and was living outside. Shelly Barbieri, a program manager at EHC LifeBuilders, has known Nava since she was 14 and remembers how she would sometimes drop in at the overnight shelter.

"We spent years trying to get her to bite on our services," Barbieri recalled. "We said, 'C'mon, Teresa, we're here for you.' But she wasn't ready, and that was OK. But we weren't going to give up, and we kept pushing."

Nava's change of heart came after learning she was going to become a mom.

"I grew up in the system, and I didn't want the same thing to happen to my kids," said Nava, now married and a mother of two young children. "So I got my stuff together real quick. I knew I had to step up and take responsibility for my life."

EHC LifeBuilders has made contact with 2,500 people, developed a close enough relationship with 438 to have their names put in a database, and helped place 64 into permanent housing during the two years of the outreach program.

It's a slow process. One of Nava's proudest accomplishments is helping a man who is believed to have spent more than two decades on downtown streets into housing. It took about 18 months.

"What you have to remember is everyone out there is a person," she said. "I needed help to get where I am today, and so do they."

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.

HOW TO HELP
Volunteers are being sought to help conduct the 2013 Santa Clara County Homeless Census on Tuesday and Wednesday. They will be paired with homeless guides who have been trained to assist with the count. Workers will cover designated areas, counting the number of homeless people they observe. For more information, contact Applied Survey Research at 877-728-4545.

TO LEARN MORE
Contact the Homeless Outreach and Engagement Hotline at 408-510-7600 or ehcoutreach@ehclifebuilders.org.