More than 150 Merced County children call motel rooms home. Another 41 people under age 24 live unsheltered in cars, under highway bridges or in tents along the roadside.

Living in such conditions leads to poor health, poor nutrition and poor grades for those in school. Some, as they get older, can be at higher risk of turning to crime or substance abuse. The human and financial costs of people living in these conditions are enormous, both for those experiencing it and for the community.

Merced County, its cities, several non-profits and many volunteers have committed to addressing the problem of child and youth homelessness through a second 100-Day Challenge, which began July 6. The goal is to find housing for 100 children and young people and their families in 100 days. The effort will concentrate on those living in temporary shelters with an emphasis on racial equity.

“Since 2020 we have seen a 170 percent increase in families experiencing homelessness,” said Lloyd Pareira, C

Chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. “They are residing in motels being used as emergency shelters by the county. We believe by focusing on finding stable housing for at least 100 children and youth in the next 100 days, we can make a real difference for those kids and for our county.”

Merced Mayor Matt Serratto, who chairs the city-county Continuum of Care, was encouraged by the number of agencies, volunteer groups and others involved – including the Housing Authority, Merced County Office of Education, Assemblymember Adam Gray’s office, Healthy House, Turning Point Community Programs, Merced Rescue Mission, the Community Action Agency, Worknet, Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the Human Services Agency.

“This is exactly the kind of effort we need to address the often-complex needs of families experiencing homelessness,” said Serratto.

In May, Merced County completed its first 100-Day Challenge – a state-sponsored program assisting local residents develop unique solutions to homelessness within their communities. Working with RE!NSTITUTE coaches, local teams were asked to define the problems, set goals and then implement solutions in their specific communities. RE!NSTITUTE works with four counties at a time, and Merced’s cohort included San Bernardino, Santa Cruz and Sacramento.

Merced County’s goal was to finding permanent housing for 20 individuals who had been living in Los Banos homeless encampments. The Challenge team – which included county staff, Los Banos public safety, members of Assemblymember Gray’s staff and many others – visited two large encampments, compiling profiles of each of the 151 people living in them. Other Challenge team members described the problem to community organizations while others searched for suitable, affordable housing.

At the end of the 100 days, Merced County had reached its goal, finding housing for 13 percent of Los Banos’ homeless population. The team also helped 65 more adults enter a pathway to safe and stable housing by finding them emergency shelter or connecting them with family or service providers. The Challenge was judged an enormous success.

“Once again, when given the opportunity and resources, Valley folks proved that their hearts are as strong as their arms,” said Assemblymember Gray, who has helped find state funding for homelessness programs in both Merced and Stanislaus counties and annually participates in the Point-in-Time census. “It wasn’t just finding homes for those individuals, the Challenge team helped them find hope and direction.”

Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen was clear on the importance of meeting the Challenge.

“Succeeding in school is hard enough for most kids,” said Tietjen. “It’s hard to imagine how much more difficult that is if you’re worried about where you’ll be sleeping that night or what you’re going to have to eat. By helping these kids and their families, we can make real difference.”

Making a difference is the real goal, said Gray: “Our next Challenge – getting young people into stable living situations – helps our communities now and far into the future.”

In this new journey, Merced will join the communities of Santa Barbara, Eureka, Lake County, Los Angeles, Richmond and Santa Cruz.

For more information on the Challenge, contact Christy McCammond at 209 385-3000, ext. 5144.

The Westside Express