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Once a year, more than a thousand volunteers try to tally the number of homeless people in the county. The number helps determine the region's share of federal funding for homeless programs. But because homeless women and youth tend to favor couch-surfing or motel rooms to sleeping on the street, they're often underrepresented in official counts.
Back in 2014, as Jeeni Criscenzo took part in the yearly effort to count the region’s homeless residents, she observed a homeless woman with a baby in her arms. When she tried to include the infant in her tally, she discovered there wasn’t any space where a baby could be registered.
“I complained about it, and the following year there was a space in the survey to count single women with babies sleeping on the streets,” Criscenzo said.
Even with the update, homeless advocates still believe certain groups of people are easier to count than others.
Once a year, more than a thousand volunteers survey homeless people as far as the eye can see – on the streets, in encampments, under bridges. It’s called the point-in-time count because it captures just a glimpse of the homeless situation on a single day. The most recent survey happened in Jan. 29, the numbers collected from it will be released this month. While efforts like the point-in-time count aren’t exact – they represent a snapshot of the region’s homeless population– they are used by state and federal governments to dole out funding for services that cater to the homeless.
A number of factors – from the way the count is executed to who qualifies as homeless – make it especially hard to count homeless youth and women, which means they’re often underrepresented in official totals.
Part of the reason it’s difficult to calculate the number of homeless residents in a given area is because it’s difficult to determine who even counts as homeless.
On that point, even the federal government seems to disagree with itself.
The federal Department of Education considers “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” as homeless. That would include people who sleep in motels, stay on friends’ couches or double up with relatives.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that mandates the point-in-time count and doles out funding tied to its results, has different categories but essentially counts as homeless those who sleep on the streets, in their cars or seek out refuge at shelters. The count uses HUD’s definition.
It would be extremely difficult to count people who sleep in motels, couch-surf or live in overcrowded spaces during the point-in-time count, said Dolores Diaz, the executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego, the nonprofit that organizes the count.
“We are sure that people are missed during the count because they don’t make the HUD definition,” she said.
Diaz said she thinks “changing that definition could dramatically impact the numbers that report for homelessness across the nation.”
Criscenzo, the woman who had trouble tallying an infant in the point-in-time count, is the founder of Amikas, a nonprofit that helps homeless women.
Criscenzo said she became interested in having a more accurate picture of homelessness when she realized the number of calls Amikas received from homeless women surpassed what the point-in-time count depicted.
“Amikas was getting a dozen phone calls a week from women who needed help and they were so desperate because no one else was offering it,” Criscenzo said. “When we tried to get funding so that we could help these women, we realized that they weren’t recognized as homeless.”
She put together an analysis that drives home the number of homeless San Diegans who might be left out of official counts. It uses data collected by the San Diego Unified School District that shows 18,528 students said they were staying with relatives or in motels instead of in a permanent residence of their own.
Criscenzo said women tend to avoid places where homeless people congregate.
“Women are so vulnerable on the street. They are vulnerable in shelters too,” Criscenzo said. She said women more often seek shelter by staying with friends or relatives.
In a 2006 report, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless described the difficulty of recognizing homeless women, even the ones who fit the narrow HUD definition: “Street homeless women are not always easy to recognize as homeless because women tend to take care of their appearance better than men.”
Some homeless people couch-surf or rent motel rooms part of the time, and sleep on the streets as a last resort. So it’s possible that even those folks, who’d qualify as homeless under the HUD definition, wouldn’t be included in the count if they didn’t happen to be on the street the night of the survey.
The design of the point-in-time count also makes it hard to survey homeless youth, said Walter Philips, CEO of San Diego Youth Services, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.
Philips pointed out that the 2015 point-in-time count found 30 unsheltered unaccompanied minors, while the San Diego Youth Services’ shelter alone received up to 150 minors throughout the year.
“You can tell just from that simple analysis that we are not hitting the right numbers,” Philips said.
“(Homeless youth) are very difficult to count because they don’t look like other homeless that you see on the street, with the shopping cart and a sleeping bag, living in a tent,” Philips said. “The youth aren’t there waiting to be counted.”
The Regional Task Force recognizes the hole in its numbers.
“We have a sound methodology for just a general homeless count,” Diaz said. “We have been doing that for years, but for counting homeless youth the methodology really doesn’t work.”
Advocates have been trying to get a more complete picture of how many homeless youth there are by collaborating with the Regional Task Force. The night of the point-in-time count, for instance, San Diego Youth Services held an open house with food, during which they welcomed – and counted – homeless youth.
But a more comprehensive look at who’s homeless in San Diego County might be on its way.
San Diego is one of the 22 randomly selected communities that will participate in Voices of Youth Count, a nationwide effort to end youth homelessness that will include “surveying youth and those around them, conducting quantitative analyses aimed at establishing a reliable national estimate.” Chapin Hall, a research center at the University of Chicago, designed the program to work with local agencies collecting data.
“What we are trying to do is to go beyond simply an accurate count, incorporating the kind of data collection that would allow us to tell a more complete story about the circumstances of homeless youth,” said Bryan Samuels, Chapin Hall’s executive director. “By doing so you are in a better position to design interventions and programs to address their needs.”
San Diego Youth Services will lead the local group. At least 13 partners have shown interest in collaborating with the study, including the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The coalition will conduct local counts, recruiting young people who are or have been homeless to conduct in-depth interviews. The counts will take place in May. Samuel believes the timing alone could produce a dramatically different result than the point-in-time count, which is conducted in January.
Winter months are when adults are more likely to seek out shelter, the thinking goes, making them easier to count. But youth are more likely to stay with friends, family or in motels during winter months. Spring’s milder climate could mean more people sleeping on the streets.
“During the month of May there will be more of them out and there’s a good likelihood that we’ll be able to count them,” Samuels said.
It’s unclear whether a May count will produce a different result but there’s a collective agreement that there’s value in experimenting with the date. Voices of Youth Count has received $250 000 in additional funding from HUD to perform the count.
“Our entire community is definitely interested in knowing how many kids are homeless in San Diego,” Diaz said. “We completely are supportive of Voices of Youth Count efforts because we do need to nail down the methodology that will help us get a handle on how many homeless we have.”