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As some other cities celebrate drops in homelessness, San Diego County’s confronted with a spike in those living on the street.
The annual point-in-time count, conducted by hundreds of volunteers on a morning in January, relies on reports from shelter operators and the observations of volunteers who seek out the homeless on sidewalks, canyons and other outdoor encampments. The results of the count released Friday revealed a 19 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness countywide but a 0.6 percent decrease in the homeless population overall.
The survey tallied 834 fewer people staying in shelters than last January’s count.
The new numbers represent a 13 percent drop in overall homelessness since 2012 but a continued challenge for the nonprofits and local officials looking to help get San Diegans off the streets.
Here are some key takeaways from the point-in-time count results.
Cities and nonprofits across the county have been shifting their approaches to combating homelessness in the last year. That could be contributing to the seemingly contradictory results of the count – a slight drop overall, but a big spike in people on the street.
San Diego’s long had a large stock of transitional housing, an approach that focuses on providing services to a person before connecting them with a permanent place to live. Last year, the federal Housing and Urban Development Department urged nonprofits to switch to new programs that prioritize housing first or risk losing funding.
The city of San Diego also moved to a year-round interim shelter at Father Joe’s Villages with an eye toward more permanent housing placements. In the process, it lost dozens of beds at two winter tents that once housed up to 350 around the time of the point-in-time count.
Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that carries out the count, was careful not to speculate about the reasons behind the results.
But she acknowledged the significant changes under way.
San Diego’s refocusing its resources – particularly on homeless veterans and new housing-first programs – and that has real impacts on the rest of the homeless population and the system serving them, she said.
“Sometimes things appear worse before they look better,” Diaz said.
While the city of San Diego’s overall homeless population is down 8 percent, downtown neighborhoods are living a different reality.
The downtown census tracts saw a 21 percent increase in street homelessness from 2015 to 2016.
More regular monthly counts by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a prominent business group, have shown massive upticks in that population too.
The Downtown Partnership’s April tabulation revealed a 21 percent spike in unsheltered homelessness since last spring and an 86 percent boom from April 2012 to April 2016.
East Village, a hub for nonprofits that serve the homeless, has seen the most significant growth.
“Our homeless are migrating, moving within the city, and they’re moving downtown,” Diaz said.
Another magnet could also be a factor: The San Diego Housing Commission hosted Project Homeless Connect, a one-day resource fair for the homeless, two days before the point-in-time count.
Federal authorities have pushed cities nationwide to focus on ending veteran homelessness. San Diego’s increased its response to that call in the last year and it’s starting to show.
The point-in-time count revealed a 16 percent reduction in San Diego’s homeless veteran population since last year’s survey. This translates into a 34 percent drop since 2012.
San Diego’s still behind, though. Several other cities announced last year that they’d effectively ended veteran homelessness.
A lack of leadership and coordination, steep housing costs and an inefficient deployment of resources previously kept San Diego from making significant progress.
Now local officials have rolled out a handful of initiatives focused on combating veteran homelessness and the San Diego Veterans Affairs has addressed staffing shortages that stymied efforts to house veterans.
San Diego Veteran Affairs program coordinator Cara Franke, who supervises the local office’s work with homeless veterans, said she’s excited about local progress now that more staffers are on the job.
“The VA has its resources mobilized,” Franke said.
Diaz also said San Diego saw roughly 13 percent drops in unsheltered chronic and family homelessness, two other groups federal officials want cities to drastically reduce in coming years.
Diaz said task force volunteers saw an unprecedented number of makeshift tents and shelters when they hit the streets in January.
They documented a 69 percent year-over-year spike countywide in so-called hand-built structures, the task force’s term for tents, cardboard boxes or tarps draped over shopping carts.
Before the point-in-time count in January, multiple homeless people and advocates told me more passerby were donating tents to the homeless, particularly in East Village, in anticipation of El Niño rains.