For the first time in three years, volunteers in Alameda County woke up before dawn on a frigid Wednesday to count how many people are currently living on the streets and in vehicles throughout the region.
The latest biannual “point-in-time” (PIT) count was supposed to happen in 2021, but the pandemic delayed it by a full year, and the omicron surge caused another postponement in January.
The count was a mostly invisible undertaking in Berkeley as small groups drove through dark streets to cover their assigned census tracts, counting tents at encampments as well as RVs and individuals camped on the street.
At least two groups in Berkeley found only a handful of people sleeping outside on the chilly February morning, when temperatures dropped to freezing in some parts of the Bay Area and even brought snow to areas of the Berkeley and Oakland hills.
Berkeley City Councilmember Sophie Hahn teamed up with Michelle Starratt, Alameda County housing director, for their count in a large Berkeley Hills census tract. The team mostly drove, but stepped out to conduct a count at Codornices Park, where they didn’t find any signs of people living outside. Hahn and Starratt have each done the count several times in past years.
Meanwhile in Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf was among volunteers who walked Lake Merritt, where she tallied some 60 people sleeping outdoors.
“It was freezing cold this morning,” she said later in the day. “To think of people sleeping outside in this weather is heartbreaking.”
In deep East Oakland, Operation Dignity workers also cruised the streets, counting RVs they spotted from their cars. City Councilmember Loren Taylor was nearby, driving along High Street and Foothill Boulevard in his district, occasionally getting out of the car to confirm what he saw as he entered data into an app.
The federal government requires counties and cities to count their homeless populations every two years in order to receive funding for homelessness programs. Alameda County’s PIT count involves hundreds of outreach workers, city officials, and volunteers, who traverse every census tract one morning in the winter, intending to cover every possible location where residents may be living.
Service providers also count the number of shelter residents that night, and a separate youth count is performed as well. Demographic information and other details about the unhoused population are collected in a related survey given by service providers to a group representing around 10% of the estimated homeless population.
“This count counts more than any count before,” said Chelsea Andrews, executive director of EveryOne Home, the nonprofit that oversees the effort. “It will take into consideration all the shifts and changes that have taken place [during the pandemic], and we’ll learn about how the services we’ve been deploying have worked.”
The 2019 PIT count found 8,022 people living in Alameda County without permanent housing, and more than half, or 4,071, were in Oakland. Berkeley, the city with the second highest number of homeless residents, counted 1,108 people.
The PIT count is considered the most accurate data source on local and regional homelessness, but it’s an estimate. Many people experiencing and working in the field of homelessness believe it’s a significant undercount, because some people living outdoors intentionally stay out of eyesight, and others who are unhoused might be crashing on a couch or another temporary indoor location the morning of the endeavor.
“There are many shortcomings of this process — and [yet] it’s the best process we have,” said Schaaf on Wednesday morning at Grove Shafter Park, where volunteers and officials gathered to debrief and drink coffee.
The PIT count “drives the aid we get to end homelessness,” and the data collected is critical for informing local policy, said Schaaf, noting that the 2019 Oakland count found that 45% of unsheltered residents were living in vehicles, a revelation that led the city to open “safe parking” sites for RVs.
An increased sense of urgency characterized this year’s PIT count. Oakland, Berkeley, and other areas of Alameda County have been waiting anxiously for more than three years to find out whether, and by how much, the unhoused population has grown since 2019, when the numbers were already on a steep incline.
There is a widespread assumption that the COVID-19 crisis has made many more people homeless, due to layoffs and other economic hardship, health needs, and familial obligations. At the same, a number of new shelters and transitional housing facilities have opened during the pandemic, meaning the sheltered homeless population will likely be much higher in this year’s report.
Throughout Alameda County, Starratt said more than 1,200 people with disabilities or health factors that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 have been rehoused due to pandemic support from the state and federal governments, and that additional funding could further housing placement and retention services.
“From the small amount of evidence that we do have…I feel this count is going to show that the unsheltered count will go down, but the overall count will not,” Hahn said, citing a census from the Berkeley Downtown Business Association that found about 50 fewer people living on the street between last year and this year.
City staff in both Berkeley and Oakland also resumed encampment closures after a long pause during the pandemic, and some advocates expressed concern that some individuals (who were formerly easier to find) may be unaccounted for, now that they’ve relocated from a closed camp to somewhere else.
In other cases, the count is unable to capture the nuances of individuals’ experiences on the streets. Lonnie Cole, who was sitting outside his tent in Oakland’s Snow Park on Tuesday, said he might be spotted during the count but he doesn’t identify as homeless. He has an apartment in Oakland, he said, but sometimes stays in the park because he works exhausting night shifts as a security guard at a building across the street.
This year’s count was conducted a bit differently than previous efforts. In other years, volunteers gathered at a central location and fanned out from there, whereas this year, small groups went out directly from their homes, to avoid COVID-19 exposure. This year, a majority of the count was conducted by homelessness service providers rather than community volunteers, also for safety. Like in previous years, people who have experienced homelessness served as paid “guides,” taking counters to little-known spots where they might not think to look for people.
Also new this year was the phone app that automatically tracked the location each time a counter submitted a new entry. Users were asked to note suspected gender and age range, though unlike in previous years, they were not asked to guess a person’s racial identity. That data and other details, like where a homeless person previously lived, will be collected through the survey.
EveryOne Home plans to release a first set of data with individual, city-level information this summer, followed by a complete countywide report in the fall.