By Gail Jonas, a Healdsburg resident. March 3, 2020
For the past two years, I’ve participated in the annual homeless count in Healdsburg. In Sonoma County, we do this count every year, although HUD mandates that it be done every other year.
In 2019, our shelterless had experienced two law enforcement actions* against their camps, on Dec. 12, 2018 and again on January 3, 2019. This made it very difficult to get an accurate count the last week in January. Fortunately, we had a very knowledgeable guide, a long-time shelterless resident of Healdsburg, who knew where many of them had relocated.
In 2020, we again faced recent removals of some of their camps by law enforcement. Some people wonder if the timing of these removals has a sinister purpose, which is to reduce the number of shelterless that can be counted. I have no idea.
Again this year we had a terrific guide, also a long-time shelterless resident who appears to be the “matron” of our unhoused residents. She organizes barbecues, helps find resources for them, and manages to keep track of most of them, even when they have to relocate.
Last year, the Healdsburg homeless count reported only 69 unsheltered persons. This year just our team, one of quite a few teams, counted 64!
Based on my having spent the last six months getting acquainted with our shelterless by spending a couple of hours with them most days, I know that many of them have no fixed place to live, sleeping in doorways of buildings and leaving before dawn. They are almost impossible to include in the count. We have a significant number of undocumented immigrant Latino men who hide out during the count because they are afraid of being deported. Also, I know of four shelterless from Healdsburg who were in jail during this year’s count on February 28th. They were not included.
So what is the value of the Point In Time [hereafter P.I.T.] Homeless Count? In my opinion, it is better than no count and in fact is essential in order to obtain federal funding. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this count vastly underreports the number of shelterless in our communities and the Sonoma County at large.
At Sonoma County’s website, https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/CDC/Homeless-Services/Homeless-Count/ regarding the P.I.T. Homeless Count, the following “challenge” is described: “Point-in-Time Counts are ‘snapshots’ that quantify the size of the homeless population at a given point during the year… For a variety of reasons, homeless persons generally do not wish to be seen and make concerted efforts to avoid detection. Regardless of how successful outreach efforts are, an undercount of the homeless population will result…”
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s report, “Don’t Count on It – How the HUD Point-in-Time Count Underestimates the Homelessness Crisis in America”, “Unfortunately, the methods used by HUD to conduct the PIT counts produce a significant undercount of the homeless population at a given point in time. In addition, regardless of their methodology or execution, point in time counts fail to account for the transitory nature of homelessness and thus present a misleading picture of the crisis. Annual data, which better account for the movement of people in and out of homelessness over time, are significantly larger: A 2001 study using administrative data collected from homeless service providers estimated that the annual number of homeless individuals is 2.5 to 10.2 times greater than can be obtained using a point in time count.”
In conclusion, perhaps the biggest benefit is that it provides our housed residents who volunteer to help with the count an opportunity to see first-hand how our shelterless are living. I’m hoping that this leads to a greater commitment to improving their lives by giving them a safe place to live while we wait many more years for adequate and appropriate housing. I personally support temporary legal encampments because: 1) It can provide them with the four P’s: Privacy, Possessions, and if applicable, Partners and Pets; and 2) It’s the least expensive solution.
* I reserve the word “sweeps” for leaves and litter, not human beings being removed from their “homes.”