Tents and tarps behind plastic barrier
Residents of East Oakland's 77th Street camp are among the estimated 4,000 unhoused people living in Oakland, as of a 2019 count. The next count won't happen until 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

Alameda County will request a year-long delay to its federally mandated count of homeless residents because of coronavirus safety concerns.

Counties across the U.S. are required to conduct “point-in-time” counts of unhoused residents every two years in January in order to receive federal homeless assistance funds. Groups of volunteers patrol the streets on a single night, tallying the number of homeless people they see and reporting data that are used not only to secure the federal funding, but to inform countless policy and resourcing decisions on the local and state levels as well. 

“This is a crucial data source. It’s really the only way we have to measure the size of unsheltered homelessness,” said Jessica Shimmin, director of analytics at EveryOne Home, at a meeting Monday of the county’s Continuum of Care board. EveryOne Home is the organization that oversees Alameda County’s point-in-time count.

The last count conducted by EveryOne Home in January 2019 found 8,022 people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, half of whom—4,071—were in Oakland. Both figures were dramatic increases over the 2017 numbers. 

Given the pandemic’s economic impacts, including job and income losses for numerous county residents, service providers and advocates are anxious to find out how many more people have become homeless locally in recent months. At the same time, the virus prompted new concerns this year about the COVID-19 exposure risk of sending hundreds of people out to interact with some of the most medically vulnerable residents during a point-in-time count. 

During Alameda County’s count, some 200 paid homeless “guides” typically take about 500 volunteers around Oakland, Berkeley, and other cities, pointing out under-the-radar places where people sleep and camp. 

“We know those 200 individuals have a higher propensity to contract the virus,” said Chelsea Andrews, EveryOne Home executive director, in an interview in late December. “There’s a lot to consider in terms of putting those individuals and volunteers in harm’s way.”

Homeless shelter staff also typically report the number of people sleeping in their facilities during the night of the count. Additional surveys clarify demographic details about the homeless population, and determine what portion sleeps in an RV, a car, a shelter, a tent, or elsewhere. Shimmin said staff at shelters told EveryOne Home that they’re stretched too thin this year to carry out their role in the point-in-time count.

At Monday’s meeting, five members of the Continuum of Care Committee (a coordinating group required by the federal government and comprised of city, county, and nonprofit representatives) voted unanimously to ask the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to postpone Alameda County’s count until January 2022. 

Numerous other counties in California have already received or requested the same waivers from HUD, according to EveryOne Home. HUD issued guidance in November, telling counties to prioritize the health and safety of homeless people, and promising not to withhold funds if counties ask to forgo the count this year. 

Monday’s decision to try to postpone the count caught many local homeless advocates by surprise. 

“I just heard of this meeting about three minutes ago,” said Naomi Schiff, a member of the Oakland advocacy group ShelterOak, during the public comment period. She said groups like hers should have been involved in the discussion before Monday.

But advocates and unhoused residents who spoke with The Oaklandside agreed with the ultimate decision to delay the count. 

“It’s very disappointing, but you can’t mess around with people’s lives,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin, of advocacy group Love and Justice in the Streets

Pastor Preston Walker, who moved from a tent near Lake Merritt to a Roomkey hotel earlier in the pandemic, said the point-in-time count produces critical data used by governments and nonprofits to distribute resources throughout his community. But he believes it’s a “safe bet” to delay this year’s count given the winter spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

Walker, who’s known for offering ministry and a listening ear to other unhoused residents, noted that previous point-in-time counts are thought by many to significantly underestimate the actual number of local homeless people. 

“The hand count is good, but so many people are in nooks and crannies, where they like to go safety-wise. If you don’t know someone’s there, you’ll walk right past them,” he said. Even with the paid guides, many people are inevitably missed. 

Another similar count has already occurred this year. The 2020 Census included a point-in-time-style homelessness count. But the Census Bureau has told Alameda County that it’s not confident in the effectiveness of that count, according to EveryOne Home’s Shimmin.

At Monday’s meeting, some of the board members, including the city of Oakland’s Lara Tannenbaum, asked whether it might be possible to delay the count until the summer or fall instead of waiting a whole year, or to conduct an informal count for internal use in the meantime. But others responded that the 2021 data would be incomparable with previous data if the count is conducted at a different time than the typical end-of-January slot.  

“It’s about six figures to do this thing at the level we’ve done in the past,” said Riley Wilkerson from the county Housing and Community Development department. “It’s a significant lift, and if we’re going to do it, we want to make sure it’s comparable.”

The Continuum of Care Committee voted to consider conducting a survey in the spring or summer to gather some data in lieu of the full count. That survey could provide a sense of how homelessness numbers have changed during the pandemic, and help governments and nonprofits distribute resources in the interim before the more comprehensive 2022 count. 

Even if Alameda County receives a waiver permitting a January 2022 count, the scheduled January 2023 count will occur as well, and continue during odd-number years thereafter.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.