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The number of people living in cars and RVs in Oakland increased by an estimated 500 over the past three years. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland’s homeless population has grown by about 1,000 people since the start of the pandemic, putting the total number of residents living without permanent housing at 5,055, according to new data released Monday.

But while hundreds more people are living without permanent housing, many in hazardous conditions, some in the homeless community feared they’d see an even larger increase during the COVID-19 crisis. Instead, the growth rate in the city’s homeless population has slowed, from 47% between 2017-2019, to 24% from 2019-2022.

Thanks to COVID-19 emergency funding, “we’ve been able to stave off a catastrophic increase,” said Tomiquia Moss, CEO of All Home, a Bay Area homelessness nonprofit, at a press conference Monday morning.

The new numbers are the result of the long-awaited 2022 “point-in-time” homeless count, or PIT count. Every two years, counties across the U.S. send out volunteers to tally how many unhoused people are living on the streets on one winter night. Shelter staff count their residents as well. 

The federal government requires these counts in order for local governments to qualify for financial assistance. The data helps determine how much funding cities and counties receive, while also influencing policy decisions.

The pandemic prompted a year-long delay of the 2021 count, forcing officials and service providers to continue relying on outdated numbers, and leaving many people with questions about the impact of the crisis on the region’s most marginalized residents. 

Similar to Oakland, Alameda County’s overall homeless population grew by 22% since 2019, to 9,747. For several years, Oakland has been home to about half of the unhoused people living in the county. Some individual cities, like Berkeley, saw a slight decrease in their numbers in the latest count. 

The homelessness crisis overwhelmingly affects Black residents in Oakland and regionally. In the city, 60% of shelter residents are Black, compared to 23% of the general population. More data coming out in the summer is expected to drill down further into the demographics of the people living without housing locally.

Moss said homelessness will not decrease in Alameda County “unless we start to focus on the root causes that preceded pandemic—structural racism and a lack of affordable housing.”

More people living in cars and shelters

The 92-room Lake Merritt Lodge was among the numerous facilities that have contributed to hundreds more residents getting sheltered during the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The 2022 PIT count found that the settings where people are experiencing homelessness in Oakland have shifted since 2019. Hundreds more people are living in cars (31% of the unsheltered population) and RVs (27%). Fewer people are living in tents: Volunteers counted 1,063 people (32% of the unsheltered population), down from 1,320 in 2019.

That decline could be due to the uptick in homeless people who secured indoor shelter over the past few years. While the number of unsheltered people in Oakland has stayed fairly steady since 2019, the number of sheltered residents doubled. Some new shelters targeted people living in nearby encampments or people living in the most unsafe conditions.

During the pandemic, state and federal COVID-19 aid enabled the county and city to significantly expand shelter options, including by renting and buying hotels and similar buildings through Project Roomkey and the Homekey program. 

Alameda County added 900 of these shelter beds during the pandemic, even as traditional group shelters closed or operated at lower capacities, according to officials. And more than 1,000 residents of the Roomkey hotel shelters were moved into permanent housing after their stays.

In Oakland, several large facilities have opened since 2019, including the Lake Merritt Lodge transitional housing site, the Clifton Hall family shelter and senior housing, and the Lakeview tiny-home village. A number of the Roomkey hotels are in East Oakland, as well. 

Officials have also credited homelessness prevention measures, like the local eviction moratoriums, rental assistance programs, and mortgage forbearance with keeping the county’s PIT count numbers lower than some expected. 

But many of the emergency shelters and programs rely on temporary pandemic aid, causing concern that progress made during the crisis will be reversed when the money runs out.

“These investments and policies were short-term,” said Chelsea Andrews, executive director of EveryOne Home, the nonprofit that oversees the PIT count, at the press conference. “We’ll have to find additional resources now, to avoid homelessness increasing exponentially in the future.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors this month approved a sweeping plan to end homelessness in the region by 2026, including by building or subsidizing 24,000 additional supportive or affordable housing units. But the plan would cost $2.5 billion to carry out, more than doubling the county’s current homelessness budget.

This year’s PIT count used new tools and methods, including a digital tracking app, thought to improve the accuracy of the data. The process also depends heavily on paid “guides” who’ve experienced homelessness, and who can lead volunteers to hidden spots where people might be living. 

Even so, the count is generally thought to be an underestimate because it relies on individuals’ observations on just one night of the year and involves counting people who may want to stay out of view.

The information released Monday is preliminary, and the county expects to have more figures this summer from surveys conducted during the count. That next release, in June or July, will include more demographic details, and more information on people’s paths to homelessness.

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.