In an biennial effort to gauge the extent of San Mateo County’s homeless population by gathering data to inform future policy decisions, hundreds of volunteers will hit the streets early Thursday morning for the national One Day Homeless Count.
Starting 5 a.m., nearly 400 people will disperse across the county from coast to Bay to tally the number of people living on the streets, in their vehicles or a shelter.
Officials are cautiously hopeful the “point-in-time” data — meaning rates likely fluctuate throughout the year — will show another decrease in the number of homeless. But with the region’s well-known housing crisis persisting, it’s not yet clear what this year’s data will reveal.
The county’s Human Services Agency is still looking for a few more volunteers to join, and Supervisor Dave Pine is participating in the count he described as eye-opening as it highlights an often hidden disparity.
“We live in one of the most affluent places in the world and the folks who are without homes, they’re our neighbors too. And I think anyone who participates in this count will learn a lot and really be deeply moved by the fact we can live in a place where we have such extremes,” Pine said. “It certainly makes me appreciate that there is a problem and we have to do everything we can to address it.”
The data may be used to steer a variety of budgeting or policy decisions as the county Board of Supervisors nears the deadline for its bold goal of ending homelessness by 2020.
“Our vision for 2020 is that homelessness is a rare, brief, one-time occurrence; that won’t mean that our 2021 homeless count is zero across the board, it just means that all of the unsheltered folks that are out there, we have talked to them, we have a case file and they’re progressing toward being ready to come in and accept services. For those in a shelter, it means they’re on a plan toward getting out, getting employed and getting healthy,” said Human Services Agency spokeswoman Effie Verducci.
For a county with a relatively small homeless population as compared to surrounding San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, Verducci said that goal is ambitious but realistic.
“We definitely have a smaller, more manageable population,” Verducci said, noting they have resources in nonprofit partner agencies. “We have good systems in place to understand to a really fine degree who our homeless are. So that enables us to create this system where we really look in depth at each person’s case and what they need to become stable over the long term.”
In 2015, the One Day Count recorded 1,772 homeless; a nearly 24 percent reduction from the 2011 and 2013 counts that rose to 2,150 people. There was also a 40 percent decrease in the number of people living on the streets from two years prior as only 775 people were counted on the streets or in vehicles during the 2015 count. The number of people in shelters or institutions has remained fairly steady, according to the county.
“Doing this every two years, it’s a measure of our progress,” Pine said.
While organizers acknowledge the census is not completely representative of the year-round homeless population, it does provide hard data and a reference point.
With the housing crisis spreading statewide, Verducci acknowledged next week’s census may not account for families who’ve lost their homes and are doubling or even tripling up under a single household. She also wondered whether they’d encounter an increased number of people living in vehicles.
In years past, a survey has been conducted on a different day to gather more information about a person’s background and how they ended up in their predicament. But this year, they’ve doubled the number of volunteers who will also be conducting surveys of homeless individuals interested in participating.
“The county of San Mateo is committed to eliminating homelessness in our county and we can’t do that without fully understanding the true scope of the challenge,” Pine said.
Applying it to practice
Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires communities participate in the count, both Pine and Verducci noted the ongoing census has been critical to informing policy.
Next week’s data will be one of the last gathered before the 2020 deadline of the county’s goal to end homelessness. The HOPE, or Housing our People Effectively, program was adopted in 2006.
One policy shift in recent times is the “housing first approach,” which national statistics have shown to be most effective, Verducci said. The methodology involves recognizing stable housing is what helps enable people to seek out other services, she said.
“You get people housed really quickly, within 30 days if possible from them losing their housing, and then wraparound the services they need, whether it’s food assistance, or mental health services, drug and alcohol dependency services, those types of things,” she said.
But one of the biggest challenges to getting people stabilized and off the street is many are simply resistant to seeking or accepting help, particularly the chronically homeless, Pine and Verducci said.
That’s where the countywide expansion of the Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT, comes in. The group, comprised of health care providers, shelter workers, law enforcement and social workers, proactively hit the streets to meet homeless people. They’re able to work closer with the chronically homeless while trying to build rapport and offer some medical services on site, she said.
Pine said another particularly valuable county program is the mobile health clinics or “street medicine team,” especially since it’s hard to maintain physical well-being when a person doesn’t have shelter.
Pine, who will vote on issues such as how to extend funds like Measure K half-cent sales tax revenue toward addressing homelessness and the housing crisis, noted the One Day Count can help guide how resources should be focused.
But the challenge exacerbated by the affordability crisis will likely remain hard to fully comprehend.
“It’s much more difficult than one would think to truly know how many people are affected by homelessness,” Pine said before reflecting on the last time he participated in the One Day Count. “It’s just so hard to fathom. No matter how many times I do it, it’s like ‘how can this be?’”
People interested in volunteering for the county’s Jan. 26 One-Day Count must sign up in advance and attend a training seminar, the last of which is held Monday. Visit hsavolunteers.ivolunteer.com/smconedaycount2017 for more information.