At first glance, San Diego’s latest annual point-in-time count appears to show a modest drop in homelessness. This year, the group counted 8,102 homeless San Diegans countywide compared with last year’s 8,576 estimate.
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.
The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, 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 amid a deadly 2017 hepatitis A outbreak . The task force’s controversial decision to exclude RVs  from last year’s tally added further urgency.
Local leaders said the count represents only a snapshot of a homeless population that’s likely much larger.
In fact, an analysis of data from the homeless management information system the task force oversees revealed 27,850 people used homeless services countywide last year – more than triple the number counted in the annual homeless census.
Yet federal officials have long required the regions across the nation to conduct point-in-time counts. This year, those officials pushed San Diego to change its approach to the annual census.
For years, the task force largely relied on what it saw. Volunteers counted people sleeping outside  and tents and vehicles that appeared to house people. Then they separately surveyed the equivalent of about 20 percent of the unsheltered population to draw conclusions about the broader population. They used that information to come up with an average number of people staying in a tent or car – then applied that as a multiplier to cars and tents encountered during the point-in-time count. Homeless service providers also share information about the number of people staying in shelters and other programs to inform the count.
This year, more than 1,500 volunteers, outreach workers and task force staffers surveyed about 46 percent of those they counted over a few days in late January, and ditched the multipliers previously used to calculate the number of people living in vehicles or tents. Essentially, they interviewed people as they encountered them rather than conduct surveys after the fact.
The new strategy brought with it a surprising result in the wake of a boom in reports of homeless San Diegans living in vehicles  following the city’s repeal of its longstanding vehicle habitation ordinance.
The task force reports it counted just 573 people living in vehicles countywide, including 74 people in RVs – a significant drop from last year’s tallies.
The task force last year used a multiplier to estimate there were 1,262 homeless San Diegans living in vehicles, a figure that did not include people living in RVs. The task force had separately counted 164 RVs countywide but did not incorporate those numbers  into last year’s annual count.
The task force did not immediately provide city-level data on people living in vehicles on Monday.
Kohler and Kat Durant, the Task Force’s operations coordinator, said this year’s decrease – both in the overarching count and in the vehicle counts specifically – reflects the task force’s new methodology and direction from HUD.
The federal agency and HUD consultants hired to advise the task force encouraged the group to only include homeless San Diegans living in vehicles who engaged with volunteers and considered themselves homeless or appeared to be homeless. They did not simply count vehicles they saw and apply a multiplier, as in past years.
“We count people. We don’t count suspicious cars and we don’t add multipliers to suspicious cars where we’re not even sure somebody is in there,” said City Councilman Chris Ward, who chairs the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “We spent so much more time over the weekend in January knocking on those cars, coming back to them trying to identify – is there one person? Are there are two people? Is there a family?”
The 573 tallied represent people who the task force was able to connect with, Ward said.
William Snow, a HUD official who oversees point-in-time counts, told Voice of San Diego that federal officials told the Task Force it needed to focus on counting people – not vehicles, as in past years.
“Our advice to them was your methodology needs to reflect people, so counting vehicles will not stand,” Snow said.
For that reason, Snow said, San Diegans should be cautious before concluding that there’s been a decrease in homeless people living on city streets or in vehicles countywide.
“You may just read this as we have a more accurate count of what’s going on,” Snow said.
Kohler, Durant and Ward said they believe the new approach is more precise and that the surveys – which they are continuing to analyze – will give the region more actionable information to aid its homeless population.
But they were quick to stress the January count’s limitations too.
“It’s probably a minimum amount of people experiencing homelessness,” Kohler said.
For that reason, the task force plans to dig into year-round numbers in a report likely to be released this summer.