COVID delays essential homeless census in the Bay Area
Bay Area counties once again are postponing an important census count of homeless residents as they grapple with staffing and volunteer shortages — and worry over how to keep participants safe during the latest COVID surge.
The point-in-time counts, which normally are conducted every other year, play a vital role in gathering data about our region’s growing homeless population, formatting aid programs and determining our federal funding allocations. That data is especially crucial now, as the pandemic has upended the economy and social service nets. By now, the Bay Area’s most recent point-in-time data is three years old.
But with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly through housed and unhoused communities, officials throughout the region are deciding it’s too risky and impractical to go ahead with counts scheduled for the end of this month. Instead, most local counties — and a number of others around the state — will postpone the event until the last week in February.
“It’s an important process and an important part of the work that we do, and we just want to make sure people feel and are as safe as possible in conducting this important work,” said Helene Schneider, a regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The federally mandated counts originally were scheduled to take place in January 2021, but due to the dangers presented by the pandemic, counties in the Bay Area and around the state opted to push them back a year, to the end of this month.
Now, Santa Clara County is moving its count back again, to Feb. 23 and 24. Like many counties, Santa Clara relies on teams of volunteers to wake up before dawn, drive or walk designated routes, and tally each unhoused person, tent and occupied vehicle they see. As of last week, fewer than half of the volunteers needed had signed up.
“The reality for us is we can’t do this count without volunteers,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of Destination: Home.
Contra Costa and San Mateo counties also are moving their street counts to Feb. 24. Alameda County officials voted Wednesday to move their count to Feb. 23.
San Francisco officials are voting Friday on whether to push their count back to Feb. 23. The city normally relies on community volunteers to help, but this year, to make sure everyone has gotten a COVID shot, it is asking only city staff and members of organizations with vaccine mandates to participate.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has to approve the date changes, has said it will allow one-month delays in counties facing COVID-related hardships. But counties must turn in their count data by April.
As the highly contagious omicron variant continues to spread, multiple Bay Area homeless shelters have had recent outbreaks — including one that hit more than half the 88 residents at Division Circle Navigation Center in San Francisco. Unhoused people may be more susceptible to the virus as they tend to be older and have more chronic health problems than the general population.
When conducting their point-in-time counts, some Bay Area counties rely on unhoused volunteers to help guide groups to areas where homeless people are likely to sleep. Officials want to make sure they keep those guides, as well as other counters, safe from COVID.
At the same time, it’s more important than ever to gather data on the region’s homeless population. While the point-in-time counts are not perfect — it’s easy to miss people, resulting in an almost certain undercount — experts say because they use the same methodology year after year, the counts are useful for pinpointing trends.
The five Bay Area counties tallied nearly 30,000 homeless people during the 2019 count, which included a census of people on the street and people in shelters, as well as a survey that gathered demographic data.
“You can’t solve what you don’t understand,” Loving said. “In the last 18 months, almost 5,000 people were put into permanent housing (in Santa Clara County). At the same time people are saying homelessness is growing and is worse than ever. We need to have some benchmarking to be all talking about the same thing.”
How to help
Several Bay Area counties need volunteers to help complete their federally mandated count of people sleeping outside, in tents and in cars and other vehicles. Most counts will take place at the end of February, early in the morning.
Santa Clara County — To sign up, visit osh.sccgov.org/2022-PIT.
Contra Costa County — Teams of two or three volunteers can sign up together at https://asr.sjc1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_79Zm8SCb7zix78i
San Mateo County — Sign up here hsa.smcgov.org/2022-one-day-homeless-count
Alameda County — Visit everyonehome.org/connect/
San Francisco — The city is not accepting community volunteers this year, as a COVID safety precaution.