Every year since 2009, volunteers have ventured out in the middle of the night across San Diego County to gather data and tally how many unsheltered homeless individuals they encounter during a single point-in-time count.
With COVID-19 still looming over the region, that in-person count has been canceled for 2021.
Mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the annual count provides an estimate of the number of homeless persons throughout San Diego County.
San Diego County’s task force is only one out of 13 Continuum of Care groups that all applied for and received a waiver from Housing and Urban Development to forego the in-person portion of the count this year out of concern for the pandemic.
The unfunded federally mandated count has been completed since 2009, providing over a decade of statistical information and meaningful information that can be isolated for different factors.
To put the unsheltered count in perspective, out of 7,658 total homeless across San Diego County reported in 2020, 3,971 persons or over 50 percent of all homeless in the region were counted as unsheltered.
Although the total count can be used for comparison sake with other parts of the country, the data can also be broken down into county versus city statistics, as well as provide a snapshot of the homeless population in different regions of the county and other subsets of information.
However, despite the point-in-time count being canceled for 2021, Regional Task Force on the Homeless Chief Executive Officer Tamera Kohler said the agency is still confident they can accurate numbers on sheltered and unsheltered individuals by leaning on information that outreach workers collect every day and on “people in shelters, in transitional housing, day centers, who use storage units” and anyone who receives regular outreach services.
That information is tracked through the Homeless Management Information System.
“We actually have a pretty robust database on what is going on every day, all the time. The point-in-time count, although pretty consistent, is definitely not the only data we collect,” Kohler said.
Outreach team efforts are a large source of information, she said so there is adequate data for constructing an accurate map of homelessness in the county without having to perform the in-person count that usually involves over 1,500 volunteers and outreach workers across 30 neighborhood sites.
The task force will be “fine in the data space” in the long run, Kohler said but part of what the point-in-time collects is the human story.
“It tells the public: this is not about a group of homeless people, this is about individuals who have had a loss of housing. There are veterans but are they male or female? There are people with disabilities, there are families— there’s every experience out there and we try to collect it and organize it,” Kohler said.
The average person who has lost the roof over their head could likely find friends or family to temporarily take them in because “most of us have a network of support we’d draw from whether we went through job loss, a rent increase, health issues; many of us have someone who could take us into a spare bedroom,” Kohler said.
Therefore, finding someone who truly has no place to go is a situation that suggests what Kohler said is a “system failure” and it is important to have outreach teams who are able to talk with first-time homeless individuals so “the conversation and case management can be tailored for each person”.
“There’s a conversation that happens with a first engagement: do you have any family or friends? Is there anywhere you can go? First time homelessness is really prevention through a rapid resolution, funding helps with that,” Kohler said.
The unsheltered point-in-time count is an annual opportunity to have that conversation with homeless individuals while gathering data.
“HUD only requires the count every other year, but we usually do it every year and we will do it next year,” Kohler said.