Continuing a decades-old tradition, hundreds of Bay Area volunteers were expected to wake in the wee hours of the morning this month to meticulously count every person they spotted sleeping on park benches or in doorways, tents and cars.

But the biennial point-in-time count, a crucial census that influences everything from federal funding to the management of local homelessness programs, won’t happen on schedule this year — if at all.

The majority of Bay Area counties are postponing the count — at least one potentially until 2022 — over worries that the census could put volunteers and unhoused people at risk of catching COVID-19.

It’s a drastic step that will disrupt key data on the growing homelessness crisis at a time when experts predict the pandemic-shattered economy will force even more people onto the streets. But those involved with the counts say it’s impossible to conduct them safely in the midst of an unprecedented surge in virus cases.

“I think in the middle of a pandemic, while this is something that is a very important part of what we do, it’s prudent to take the step of pausing at this time to not put anyone’s life in danger,” said Chelsea Andrews, executive director of EveryOne Home, which leads Alameda County’s count.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires every county in the country to count its unsheltered homeless residents during the last 10 days of January in odd-numbered years. Experts agree the tallies are almost certainly an undercount — volunteers are sure to miss people sleeping in out-of-the-way places or couch-surfing at a friend’s house — but say the numbers are important for measuring trends.

But this year, HUD is allowing counties to apply for an exemption to opt out of all or part of the count.

Alameda County and San Francisco leaders voted this week to apply for the exemption, with an Alameda County advisory committee recommending the count be pushed back to January 2022. Contra Costa County plans to postpone its count until late February 2021, and San Mateo County plans to delay as well, though officials haven’t settled on a new date. Santa Clara County officials were still reevaluating their plans, and expect an update on any changes in the next few weeks.

“Nobody is taking this decision lightly,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer with the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness and a member of the city’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board. “It’s just knowing that it’s too big of a risk — that it just wouldn’t be safe.”

The five Bay Area counties tallied a total of nearly 30,000 homeless people during the 2019 count. With the economy shuttered thanks to the pandemic, millions of Californians out of work and eviction moratoriums potentially ending in the coming months, the unhoused population is expected to continue to grow.

HUD has approved waivers for several other California counties, including Sacramento, Los Angeles and Fresno. Counties that opt out of the count still must submit a census of people living in their shelters, pandemic hotels and other emergency housing.

Counties are requesting waivers as a recent COVID spike — which hit the state like never before in December — infiltrates homeless communities. Alameda County reported a 26% increase in cases among homeless residents between Dec. 7 and Jan. 5. Contra Costa County saw at least 141 new infections in unhoused people last month, compared to just 30 in November.

In pre-COVID years, unsheltered point-in-time counts involved volunteers, city staff and outreach workers teaming up in small groups and hitting the pre-dawn streets to tally everyone they come across who appears to be homeless.

Later, outreach workers followed up with surveys that collected important demographic information about people on the street — such as their age, race, sexual orientation and the factors that led to their homelessness — which help counties and cities better tailor programs to meet people’s needs. Those surveys will be postponed this year as well.

In Alameda County, the effort requires about 500 counters each year, plus at least 200 homeless or formerly homeless guides who are paid to lead their teams to spots where unhoused people are likely to sleep, said Jessica Shimmin, director of analytics for EveryOne Home. In addition to the dangers posed by the virus, the nonprofits that typically help with the count say they’re stretched too thin this year as they try to make shelters COVID-safe, wind down pandemic hotel programs and gear up to vaccinate unhoused communities.

Though the point-in-time counts provide the only consistent, far-reaching data available on the region’s homeless populations, they have their flaws.

“I’ve always questioned the reliability of that count, even in the best of times,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said last year, adding that it’s not the only way his office will measure the success of its efforts to eradicate homelessness.

And individual communities have their own internal metrics to measure their homeless populations, said Tomiquia Moss of All Home.

“It’s not useless,” she said of the point-in-time count. “But it certainly isn’t the only tool that’s going to help communities reduce homelessness.”


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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