"A call to arms."

That's what Beetle Barbour of the Amador-Tuolume Community Action Agency called the result of a survey revealing that at least 400 homeless people live in Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties.

And, chances are, said Barbour, a lot more live under bridges, or camp or squat in abandoned buildings than were counted in this month's survey.

Unlike that in cities, the homeless population in the foothills is not in your face and obvious. "They hide," said Barbour. "To a large extent, it's pride. A lot of them don't want to be counted."

Still, 400 were counted: 128 adults and 53 children in Tuolumne County, 137 adults and 31 children in Calaveras County and 42 adults and nine children in Amador.

They are our invisible citizens, scratching out lives on the margins of society. They ask little and receive less. They don't panhandle on Sonora's Washington Street or Angels Camp's Main Street. They don't petition our boards for help or cash. And, unless you're up early and chance upon a few straggling from overnight encampments, you might not see our homeless at all.

Sure, some have sealed their own unpleasant fate with drugs or criminal behavior. But others, survey interviews reveal, ended up on the street through bad luck, bad breaks and bad choices they now regret. A large percentage may be mentally ill. And certainly the 93 children counted "the innocent homeless," Barbour calls them did not choose the difficult life they now lead.

That's why the numbers, which are likely higher than most residents would have guessed, are indeed a call to arms.

Because Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne county supervisors have pledged $105,000 in community development block grants to gauging and solving the homeless problem, there is a good chance this call will be answered. The grant money has already paid for the survey and for two consultants who will chart the course over the next few months.

Between now and June, Barbour said, time will be of the essence.

June 8 is the deadline for applying for $240,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants that would be split among the three counties. Among other things, the annually renewable grant would allow the counties to lease apartments, which, in turn, could be rented out to homeless individuals or families at a subsidized rate while they get on their feet again.

More housing assistance may be available through California's Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act. Passed in 2004, it provides nearly $800 million a year statewide for a variety of local programs aimed at helping the mentally ill.

In June, a final report on the just-completed survey will be presented to the three county boards involved. So will recommendations of the Central Sierra Continuum of Care, the broad-based committee heading up the effort.

Based on a preliminary vote, homeless families with young children will be a key target of the local effort.

Other targets should be setting up a homeless shelter in Calaveras County, which is now without one. Also, a priority should be helping those who help themselves. Those who do not make good faith efforts to find work or housing should be deprived of further aid.

Finally, homelessness should be recognized as the communitywide problem it is. Although federal and state aid is a key weapon against it, grants alone are not the answer.

Churches, service clubs and civic organizations should also ask themselves how with contributions, volunteers or shelter from the heat or cold they can help.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller, City Editor Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.