A biennial count of Silicon Valley’s unhoused population — critical for understanding if the homeless crisis is getting worse — won’t happen this year because of COVID-19. Some advocates worry that could mean a loss in federal funding for homeless services.
Santa Clara County’s “point in time” count, which involves volunteers scouring streets, tents and underpasses to physically count homeless residents over several days, last occurred in 2019. It was due again this January, but county officials say it won’t happen.
The Santa Clara County Continuum of Care (CoC) — a coalition of local government leaders and community advocates dedicated to ending homelessness — made a request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to waive this year’s count and postpone it to 2022.
“As the COVID-19 cases surged in the community in December 2020 and January 2021, the CoC determined that the extensive effort and manpower required to conduct a (point-in-time) count is better spent on our ongoing efforts to assist and protect homeless individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic,” a county spokesperson said. “The CoC also felt that it was not possible to conduct an accurate (point-in-time) count while adhering to the public health guidelines in our community.”
The implications from a lack of new homeless numbers could be significant. Some advocates worry the county will lose crucial data needed to apply for federal funding to alleviate homelessness and to inform policymakers on how to best offer services.
The count in 2019 showed a significant spike in the number of people living on the streets. The number of homeless residents countywide jumped to 9,706, up 31% from 2017. The count tallied 6,172 homeless people in San Jose alone, a spike of 42%.
Now, no one will know for sure how many people are living on the streets today — two years later.
Pastor Scott Wagers, who runs the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry, said the count would likely show an increase in homelessness due to COVID-19.
“It would be good to have the numbers, but it doesn’t really matter if the county’s not gonna act on those numbers and act like it’s a crisis,” Wagers said.
Louis Chicoine, CEO of Abode Services, voted to cancel the count. His employees, who help count homeless residents, still haven’t been vaccinated, he said. Nor have the unhoused individuals.
“It’s important that we do a count every year,” Chicoine said. “We just need to realize we’re in a very unique situation because of the pandemic. We ought to take a break.”
The count helps ensure the county’s homelessness services are targeted to the right people, determine what types of services are needed and help lobby for new policies. Some worry the lack of data could jeopardize future funding for county housing programs.
“We would prefer the count not to be canceled,” said Sandy Perry, president of the Affordable Housing Network of Santa Clara County. “If they are going to cancel it, they need to make provisions so we don’t lose funding.”
Peter Connery, president of Applied Survey Research — a consulting firm that helps the county administer homeless services — assured canceling the count will not affect Santa Clara County’s ability to get federal funding for homeless programs. He said HUD can use data from previous years along with information from people currently registered for services to provide more funding.
Chicoine said Santa Clara County keeps records of who receives help and housing, which could supplement the point-in-time count.
“The count does play a role in reminding people of this social problem we have, but I think we can get at that in a different way,” Chicoine said.
Other major counties including San Francisco and Los Angeles have also paused their point-in-time counts.
The count has two parts: A tally of individuals who are unsheltered or in encampments and another count of people sheltered in emergency and transitional shelters.
County officials said the sheltered portion happened Jan. 28, but the unsheltered count will be delayed until January 2022.
Robert Aguirre, an advocate and formerly homeless resident of San Jose, said a count is both necessary and possible during the pandemic.
Public health orders this year generally prohibited dismantling homeless encampments. Aguirre said that could mean the “most accurate point in time count ever” because people aren’t moving around as much.
“What a great opportunity to pull that data together,” Aguirre said. “By collecting names and locations of people, we can go back, have discussions with people and find out what individual barriers they are facing to get them back on their feet.”
Longtime homeless advocate Gail Osmer said the count hasn’t helped move the needle on solving homelessness.
“We still have thousands of unhoused folks,” Osmer said. “If we get money (from the count), great. But where’s the money going? Is it getting more housing? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.