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The 2022 Point-in-Time count will reveal whether more people have become homeless in Oakland during the pandemic. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the early morning hours of Jan. 25, 2022, hundreds of people will fan out across Alameda County, traversing every neighborhood to count the number of unhoused people sleeping in tents and cars and in doorways. 

People who’ve experienced homelessness will serve as paid guides, directing the counters to hidden and unexpected locations where unsheltered people live. The evening before, staff at shelters will have tallied everyone sleeping indoors.

This “Point-in-Time” count, or PIT count, normally takes place every two years, providing a “snapshot looking at who is homeless at one day in time,” said Kathie Barkow, a consultant facilitating Alameda County’s count, at a meeting on Monday. The virtual meeting was hosted by EveryOne Home, the nonprofit that oversees the local PIT count, and covered what to expect this year for organizations and community members interested in helping out.

Elected officials, advocates, and service providers rely on PIT count data to develop homelessness programs and budgets. The federal government requires counties and regions seeking federal homelessness funds to conduct the biannual count, and the data helps determine how much money each area gets. Surveys conducted in the weeks immediately following the count gather more detailed information, like how long people have been homeless, what type of setting they live in, and characteristics like age, race, and disability status. 

But COVID-19 safety concerns prompted Alameda County and others to make a tough call last year, canceling the scheduled January 2021 count to protect the health of the unhoused people being counted, as well as the hundreds of volunteers who gather in person to conduct it. So for the past year, cities like Oakland have used outdated numbers to make major decisions. Meanwhile, the impact of the pandemic on the area’s homeless population has gone untracked.

“This count counts more than any count before it,” said Chelsea Andrews, executive director of EveryOne Home, at Monday’s meeting.

The organization says 125 people have already volunteered to help with the count, but many more will be needed to reach the 500 or so who hit the streets in 2019. People interested in volunteering can sign up now, and more detailed registration information will be provided in mid-November, organizers said. At that point, volunteers will be able to sign up to cover specific census tracts, which are small geographic areas like neighborhoods. 

Sabrina Fuentes served as a guide for the 2019 count, directing her team around the Piedmont area they were assigned. Fuentes, who works in harm reduction in Oakland, was unhoused on and off until about a decade ago, so she had some insight into where the group might find people to count: for example, by Starbucks and liquor stores, and other places that open early and have bathrooms where people who’ve slept outside can wash up. 

“I believe the value in the count is not just for this huge number that’s given to the government, but a lot of the value is given to the people doing the count themselves,” Fuentes told The Oaklandside. “The reality of what they’re seeing and what they’re involved with isn’t going to be erased. They’re going to look at people’s faces and get a reality check,” understanding the extent of the crisis.

Fuentes is interested in serving in a similar role again, although organizers said the system this year will be a bit different, with service providers managing the guides. At Monday’s meeting they stressed that any of the PIT count plans could shift if pandemic conditions change. 

“It feels like we are coming out [of the pandemic], but we know winter months are upon us,” Barkow said. “It’s also a time when staff and people experiencing homelessness are fatigued and overstretched. People are dealing with a lot as we’re going into this count.”

No matter what, the PIT count process will look different than it has in previous years. Typically, volunteers gather at a central meeting spot around 5 a.m. the morning of the count, then hop in their cars, or take off on foot, in groups of two or three people, to head to the area they’re counting for the next four hours or so. This year, the groups will be trained online and leave for their counts directly from their homes. EveryOne Home is encouraging volunteers to team up with others in their COVID-19 pods or social circles. 

Data must be provided to the federal government in the spring. At a meeting next week, community members can weigh in on what questions they hope to see included in the survey, which is typically given to about 10% of the counted population with the intention of producing a representative picture of the broader group.

The 2019 PIT count tracked 4,071 homeless people living in Oakland, about half of the 8,022 people found throughout the entire county. The PIT count is often considered a conservative estimate, in part because it doesn’t capture the many unstably housed people who couch-surf but lack a permanent place to live, and because the count itself requires some guesswork on the part of volunteers observing their surroundings. 

Among Oakland’s homeless population in 2019, just 21% were sheltered, living in transitional housing programs, county-provided motel rooms, emergency shelters, and other facilities. The remaining 79% were unsheltered, sleeping in cars, tents, and on the street.

That count also revealed that an overwhelming majority of Oakland’s unhoused residents—70%—identified as Black, even as the general Black population is shrinking in the city. Sixty percent of the population was male, and 78% were formerly housed in Alameda County.

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.