Funky Homeless Count in San Diego

by on June 12, 2018 · 0 comments

in Homelessness, San Diego

Every year in San Diego, the numbers of homeless people are accessed in the annual point-in-time count. Those numbers – collected by volunteers working for the Regional Task Force on the Homeless  – are then used as a measure for the area’s progress in ending homelessness and – importantly – the funds and other resources required and received from the State and Feds.

Politicians can then use those numbers in speeches, touting their success in this or that figure that has risen or fallen. So, this year the count was on January 26 – and volunteers spread out all over the region with their census sheets.

And as it turned out, fortunately for them, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, County Supervisor Ron Roberts and City Councilman Chris Ward all held their pressers and got to announce a 6% drop in homelessness, compared to last year. Faulconer got to glorify the fact that now 312 fewer people were counted living in vehicles in the city of San Diego. “What these numbers show is that our new homeless programs are working,” said Faulconer.

There was just one problem. The numbers were wrong. And off – and actually higher. The count was funky – it left out hundreds of people living in RVs, and those enrolled in programs at the San Diego Rescue Mission, as Lisa Halverstadt at Voice of San Diego wrote on May 31, 2018.

People living in RVs and in programs have been of late included in the point-in-time. This year they weren’t.

The Task Force that coordinated the count, reports their January volunteers counted more than 164 RVs – which translates into 333 homeless San Diegans. But these numbers weren’t included in the final count. Plus the Task Force reports “the Rescue Mission, which reports it had 309 people staying in its shelters and other programs the night of the count, wasn’t included because that agency failed to turn in paperwork ….”

Halverstadt reported:

That means the Task Force could have reported nearly 9,220 homeless San Diegans this year – up from the 8,576 detailed in a report earlier this month and the 9,116 reported last year.

Task Force officials say they weren’t attempting to skew this year’s point-in-time count results by excluding people staying at the Rescue Mission or living in RVs, a population that has soared in other regions.

But the annual census number has become politically sensitive in recent years, especially after last year’s devastating hepatitis A outbreak resulted in a dramatic increase in local resources to try to stem the homelessness crisis.

She also noted that one well-known homeless advocate was so upset about the decision by the Task Force not to count the RVs, he sent “a letter to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development urging it not to certify San Diego’s count.” HUD officials responded they’ll examine San Diego’s count more closely.

Tamera Kohler, the Task Force’s chief operating officer – and new to the Task Force – , denied there was any effort by or pressure on her to make the homeless numbers go down.  So, why then, weren’t the RV and program numbers included – or at least accounted for in the final tally that goes to the politicians who can make their speeches and to the Feds who deliver the money?

As Halverstadt explains,

“For years, the Task Force has coordinated San Diego’s point-in-time count and relied on a multi-part process to estimate the region’s homelessness population.”

  • Volunteers deploy in the wee hours of dawn on one day in January to count people they find sleeping outside, in tents and in vehicles that appear to house homeless people.
  • The volunteers survey around 20% of the unsheltered population, which is used to determine the broader homeless population.
  • Volunteers ask homeless sleeping in cars or RVs how many people sleep in their vehicles – then an average is figured out, which is used as a multiplier to tally the numbers of homeless people living that way.
  • Homeless service providers then make reports of the number of people staying in their shelters and other programs the evening of the census.

But Kohler just joined the Task Force last October and has never before been involved with the San Diego count. She has led homelessness programs in Seattle and Utah. Halverstadt reported Kohler soon had questions regarding San Diego’s methods. Apparently Kohler and Task Force CEO Gordon Walker – who had worked with Kohler in Utah – decided to count the RVs separately from other vehicles.

But San Diego has historically counted RVs along with other vehicles; volunteers did not distinguish between them in their reports. No matter, Kohler changed it. On that big count morning in January, “hundreds of San Diego volunteers were instructed to mark RVs separately from other vehicles they spotted during the homeless census.”

On top of this methodology switch, the Rescue Mission failed to meet an April 30 deadline accounting for the numbers of their homeless clients. Nobody contacted the Rescue Mission to inform them they were not included in the annual count, according to its vice president.

The VOSD article stated, “The Rescue Mission, one of San Diego’s best-known homeless service providers, has recorded at least 350 people staying in its facilities each year since 2014.” And Task Force staff knew this – but failed to include it. Plus Kohler wasn’t ready to share the RV data, so it wasn’t included either.

The tally was totaled and the report went out – wow, a 6% drop – set up that press conference immediately!

Halverstadt: “But the decision not to include RVs in the overall counts and the missing data from the Rescue Mission wasn’t mentioned when officials unveiled the results.”

What a great city!





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