By Dave Schwab
The annual 2019 Point-in-Time Count of the region’s homeless population suggests their total number may be shrinking, though some news sources and others who actually counted heads doubt the total accuracy of figures released.
The Point-in-Time Count, better known as WeAllCount, was begun in the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. This year’s data determined that, at the very minimum, there are 8,102 homeless San Diegans living on public streets or in shelters, on any given night in San Diego County. Those numbers are down from last year’s 8,576 estimate.
The Point-in-Time Count also found that the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in San Diego County was 3,626, and the number of homeless individuals in shelters was 4,476. Of the total homeless population, 10% are veterans, 36% reported having a physical disability, 12% of the total population are under age 24, and 3% are families with at least one child.
This year’s count was performed by more than 1,500 volunteers and outreach workers across the region. They focused on engaging the homeless population directly. One-on-one conversations guided by informed questions were used by volunteers wherever homeless individuals were encountered. Volunteers interviewed homeless people as they contacted them, instead of conducting surveys after the fact.
Philip Ballew was one of the volunteers who conducted interviews in the Mission Valley area.
“We started the event at 6:30 a.m. I felt this was not ideal because all of the homeless people had woken up and gone out to start their day by then,” Ballew said. “The event was handled well though by the leaders of the group. The time spent took about three hours. I felt we could have found more people if we spent time in the middle of the night, but I was told that was too risky.”
He also knew of some groups that were accompanied by police officers, which he worried would deter people from talking to the volunteers.
Among those questioning the veracity of the raw data from this year’s homeless count is Voice of San Diego (VOSD), a San Diego member-based nonprofit investigative news organization.
“At first glance, San Diego’s latest annual Point-in-Time Count appears to show a modest drop in homelessness,” said Lisa Halberstadt of VOSD. “But officials caution the data isn’t comparable because of changes to the way the count is carried out and to the methodology the group uses to arrive at a final tally.”
In a recent VOSD article, Halberstadt noted that the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH), which coordinates the homeless census, changed its strategy this year at the urging of federal officials and consultants who scrutinized San Diego’s homelessness response during the deadly 2017 hepatitis A outbreak.
“The task force’s controversial decision to exclude RVs from 2018’s tally added further urgency,” wrote Halberstadt. “Local leaders said the count represents only a snapshot of a homeless population that’s likely much larger.”
Halberstadt points to an analysis of data from the homeless management information system the task force oversees, which reveals 27,850 people used homeless services countywide last year — more than triple the number counted in the annual homeless census.
Deacon Jim Vargas, president/CEO of Father Joe’s Villages and secretary of the board of RTFH, said in a press release that he was “encouraged to see our community finding new ways to gather more complete information about the state of homelessness in San Diego.
“An in-depth annual count is a helpful complement to what we learn every day helping people get back on their feet at Father Joe’s Villages,” Vargas said. “I was especially pleased to see the use of one-on-one interviews this year as well as new efforts to count people across more neighborhoods of San Diego. This is a step in the right direction toward gathering helpful data.”
Vargas added the homeless count serves as “a reminder for all of us that too many people are still struggling. As we look beyond the numbers, we know that each person experiencing homelessness has a unique story and needs a unique combination of housing and services in order to achieve stability.”
Added Vargas, “A comprehensive plan that spans the region will be necessary to effectively and efficiently deploy adequate resources.”
Fellow RTFH board member County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the latest homeless count will help authorities target public services offered to San Diego’s homeless.
“The county of San Diego works collaboratively with local governments and our community partners, to connect people experiencing homelessness with resources that put them on a path to a healthier, more stable life,” Fletcher said. “Now that we have a clearer, more precise picture of the individuals’ needs, we are going to be able to establish the right mix of services and programs to those experiencing homelessness.”
It’s up to the RTFH now to complete the annual Point-in-Time Count by using critical statistics gathered to secure federal funding for needed homeless housing and services.
“We have leveraged the capacity and resources of the RTFH as an expert on homelessness to deliver an accurate and verifiable count that has already improved our understanding of this vulnerable population,” said District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward, who chairs the RTFH. “The improved methods used focus on direct, consistent engagement with homeless San Diegans aligning us with nationally recognized best-practices. This improved outreach methodology sets the tone for formalizing and standardizing a qualified outreach protocol for use throughout the county.”
— Reach Dave Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org.