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Officials Excluded Hundreds of Homeless San Diegans From Latest Homeless Census

San Diego’s latest point-in-time count omitted hundreds of homeless people who likely would have been counted last year. If they’d been included, San Diego likely would have seen an increase in homelessness instead of the drop officials touted.

City-sanctioned homeless campgrounds in Golden Hill / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post has been updated.

San Diego’s latest homeless census left out hundreds of people living in RVs, and enrolled in programs at the San Diego Rescue Mission.

Those people are typically included in the annual point-in-time count, which the region uses to monitor its progress combating homelessness and the resources the issue requires. They were excluded this year, officials with the countywide group responsible for the effort confirmed.

Yet earlier this month, when local leaders including County Supervisor Ron Roberts and City Councilman Chris Ward announced the results, they touted a 6 percent year-over-year drop in homelessness. They didn’t mention who was left out of this year’s count – or that including them could have shown a modest increase in homelessness.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, which oversees the count, now reports that volunteers counted more than 164 RVs during the January census. That would have translated into another 333 homeless San Diegans, if the nonprofit had applied its typical methodology for determining how many people were living in those vehicles. Instead, the group excluded them from the total.

And the Task Force says the Rescue Mission, which reports it had 309 people staying in its shelters and other programs the night of the count, wasn’t included because that agency failed to turn in paperwork validating details about people staying in its facilities.

That means the Task Force could have reported nearly 9,220 homeless San Diegans this year – up from the 8,576 detailed in a report earlier this month and the 9,116 reported last year.

Task Force officials say they weren’t attempting to skew this year’s point-in-time count results by excluding people staying at the Rescue Mission or living in RVs, a population that has soared in other regions.

But the annual census number has become politically sensitive in recent years, especially after last year’s devastating hepatitis A outbreak resulted in a dramatic increase in local resources to try to stem the homelessness crisis.

“It was never about, ‘How do we get this to go down this much or that much?’” said Tamera Kohler, the Task Force’s chief operating officer. “It was actually trying to figure out, where can we reach a place where we can stand behind all of the formulas, all of the methods.”

The Task Force’s decision not to initially report the number of RVs it counted spurred Michael McConnell, an advocate who once served as vice chair of the Task Force, to send a letter to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development urging it not to certify San Diego’s count.

HUD officials have since said they plan to take a closer look at San Diego’s count, a move Kohler says she welcomes.

For years, the Task Force has coordinated San Diego’s point-in-time count and relied on a multi-part process to estimate the region’s homelessness population.

Volunteers deploy early one January morning to count people they see sleeping outside, as well as tents and vehicles that appear to house homeless people. Then volunteers survey about 20 percent of the unsheltered population to draw conclusions about the broader population. Volunteers ask homeless San Diegans sleeping in cars or RVs how many people sleep in their vehicles. The Task Force then calculates how many people are living in the average vehicle, which it uses as a multiplier on the number of vehicles counted to determine how many homeless people are living that way.

Homeless service providers later report the number of people staying in their shelters and other programs the evening of the census.

Kohler, who once led homelessness programs in Seattle and Utah, said she had questions about San Diego’s homeless census approach soon after she joined the Task Force in October.

San Diego has historically counted RVs along with other vehicles, and not had volunteers distinguish between them in their reports. It’s also used surveys to calculate multipliers then used to estimate how many people are living in vehicles and tents.

Kohler said she questioned whether San Diego’s count should rely more on surveys and less on multipliers.

Her arrival coincided with an explosion of anecdotes and news stories describing people in West Coast cities who can’t afford homes or apartments moving into RVs instead.

In a report released Thursday, Seattle area officials estimated that the number of people living in RVs in King County had more than doubled from 2017 to 2018.

San Diego County officials reported a similar uptick in people living in vehicles – though not specifically RVs – from 2015 to 2016, and the numbers held steady the following year. In 2018, county officials still counted people living in vehicles, and found the number dropped by a third from the year previous. But they did not include the number of RVs counted during this year’s census.

Experts say RVs are often a safe haven for families who’d otherwise be forced to live on the street. Portland, Oregon’s 2017 survey of its homeless population, for example, found 53 percent of unsheltered families with children slept in vehicles such as RVs rather than on the street.

Kohler said she and Task Force CEO Gordon Walker, who previously worked together in Utah, discussed counting RVs separately from vehicles soon after her arrival to get a better handle on them.

By January, hundreds of San Diego volunteers were instructed to mark RVs separately from other vehicles they spotted during the homeless census. As in past years, they were told to count RVs that looked dilapidated, appeared crammed with items or had covered windows, among other attributes.

Task Force staffers later surveyed people living in vehicles and calculated a multiplier assuming about two people lived in each one documented during the count.

Kohler said she continued to ask HUD how the Task Force should handle the RVs and multipliers long used in its point-in-time count but didn’t get the clarity she sought. She shared an early January email thread with VOSD in which a HUD official who oversees point-in-time counts suggested agencies use judgment when counting RVs. She says that feedback only raised more questions for her team.

By late April, the rush was on to finalize the numbers.

Task Force staffers say the Rescue Mission failed to meet an April 30 deadline to verify whether their programs primarily served homeless clients. They said they repeatedly contacted the agency to get them to sign a form the Task Force began requiring providers to sign this year.

On Thursday, a Rescue Mission vice president said he wasn’t aware of the significance of that form – or that his agency wasn’t included in the census – until VOSD called this week.

“I hadn’t heard the communication, ‘Look if we can’t get this paperwork in then it’s going to result in x, y and z as far as being left out of the point-in-time count,’” said Jeremy Dawsey-Richardson, the agency’s vice president of programs. “For me, that would have been helpful to know.”

Dawsey-Richardson said he wasn’t sure whether his staff or the Task Force had failed to underline the significance of the form.

It’s not unheard of for an agency not to be included in the point-in-time count. For the past two years, the El Cajon-based East County Transitional Living Center failed to report. This year, it did and said 313 people stayed at its facilities.

The Rescue Mission, one of San Diego’s best-known homeless service providers, has recorded at least 350 people staying in its facilities each year since 2014.

Task Force staff knew this as they scrambled to pull together their annual report. They also decided they weren’t ready to share RV data and that it required more analysis.

“This was a piece we weren’t quite done with,” Kohler said.

But the decision not to include RVs in the overall counts and the missing data from the Rescue Mission wasn’t mentioned when officials unveiled the results.

At the May 17 press conference announcing the decrease in homelessness, Mayor Kevin Faulconer hailed the news that 312 fewer people were counted living in vehicles in the city, among other statistics.

“What these numbers show is that our new homeless programs are working,” said Faulconer, who has directed city cash to safe parking programs for people living in vehicles other than RVs.

A Faulconer spokesman said the mayor had not been aware that RVs weren’t included in the count when he spoke at the press conference. Roberts and Ward, who serve as chair and vice chair of the Task Force’s board, said last week they also had not been aware of the decision not to include them before the results were released.

Indeed, word of the Task Force’s decision not to include RVs in its overall point-in-time results didn’t spread until after the press conference.

“It cannot be assumed that every individual in a RV would consider themselves homeless,” the Task Force wrote in a report posted during the press conference, noting that it was acting on HUD guidance and intended to do outreach to San Diegans living in RVs.

The Task Force did not report the number of RVs or people estimated to be living in them.

Last week, VOSD obtained a document showing the Task Force had at one point estimated 445 people were living in RVs countywide on the day of the count, and that just over half were parked in the city.

The Task Force confirmed the earlier estimate was authentic but provided an updated figure.

After further analysis, Task Force staff said they had confirmed 164 RVs should be counted. That would add up to about 333 people once this year’s multiplier is applied.

Kohler and Task Force staffers told VOSD they had eliminated some RVs after reviewing census tracts where volunteers reported more than four RVs. In some instances, they said, RV owners seemed unlikely to be homeless.

Task Force staff said at least some RVs were axed after the Task Force looked at Google Street view snapshots of RVs parked in driveways or on residential streets. Those photos were taken more than a year ago, and in some cases, as much as four years ago. Photos reviewed by VOSD showed some looked relatively new while at least one had covered windows, an attribute a Task Force training video suggested can hint that a homeless person is living inside.

Pat Leslie, a Point Loma Nazarene social work professor who for years advised the Task Force on its homeless census, said she was not aware of past instances where the Task Force had consulted Google Street View for this purpose. Leslie did not work on this year’s count.

A HUD spokesman did not directly respond to VOSD’s questions about whether this review process was appropriate. He instead noted that the federal agency does not have a formal policy on counting RVs but suggested regions invest time to learn about those living in them to set their own policies.

“This requires that they literally knock on RV doors to ascertain how many people are sleeping in the RVs, whether the RV provides the basic amenities, and whether the RV is being used for recreational purposes or as that household’s residence,” HUD spokesman Ed Cabrera wrote in an email. “While the (region) does not have to have their volunteers knock on every RV door, they have to have a meaningful sample of that population before they can make a broader assumption about how to count households sleeping in RVs.”

Kohler said San Diego still needs to do that research and plans to increase outreach to people living in RVs to decide how to handle the population in future homelessness counts. She said the Task Force plans to consult HUD throughout that process.

Kohler said she expects to advocate a method similar to one followed in Utah, where volunteers interact with each person who is counted rather than count tents and RVs from afar.

For now, various regions count vehicles and RVs differently. West Coast communities, including San Diego and Seattle, have historically used multipliers to calculate the number of people living in vehicles or tents while others count only those they survey.

Joe Colletti, a Pasadena-based consultant who has questioned how RVs should be considered in homeless counts, said San Diego is one of many regions seeking more clarity from HUD on how to count RVs and the people living in them. He’s hopeful HUD might provide it this year.

“The reason we need guidance from HUD is that we all should be doing it as similarly as possible,” Colletti said.

This story has been updated to reflect numbers and comments provided by the San Diego Rescue Mission after this post was initially published.

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