By Lana Harrison
In the pre-dawn hours of a December morning, the Clean & Safe Program’s Homeless Outreach Coordinators led small groups of volunteers and other Clean & Safe employees onto the streets of Downtown to count and survey people experiencing homelessness.
It was a routine exercise for the coordinators, who work daily to connect homeless individuals with opportunities to take steps out of homelessness. But it was quite a new experience for many volunteers — some of whom were college students visiting from out of town for a service project.
Equipped with flashlights, clipboards, and a bag full of new socks to hand out, the crews were participating in a pilot program in preparation for January’s Point-in-Time-Count event that takes its data for WeAllCount, the federally mandated annual census of homeless persons.
Organized by the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH), WeAllCount is San Diego’s effort to comply with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requirements to receive federal funding. Although HUD does require an official count only every other year, RTFH galvanizes volunteers and service providers to conduct the count annually for more consistent data collection.
Clean & Safe performs monthly counts of unsheltered homelessness Downtown in collaboration with The San Diego Downtown Fellowship, who helps verify the numbers. The January count, however, is a regional effort that requires hundreds of volunteers and seeks to understand the nature and causes of homelessness by asking those experiencing it themselves.
A glimpse at the 2018 Point-in-Time-Count results found on the RTFH website reveals a six percent decrease in homelessness compared to those counted in 2017.
Of the census tracts covered, the Downtown tract that includes the 12th and Imperial Transit Center recorded the greatest number of people experiencing homelessness. Overall, 74 percent of those unsheltered said they became homeless in San Diego, and 43 percent reported having a physical disability.
As with any data set, there was a recognized need for improvement in both the way information is gathered as well as what data points are collected. In response, the RTFH has modified the methodology for this year’s count and survey.
According to a newsletter posted on their website, “The Regional Task Force on the Homeless is expanding and strengthening the methodology of the annual WeAllCount to focus on not just counting homeless individuals, but also engaging them to understand their needs and priorities in order to better serve them.”
The pilot survey implemented by the Clean & Safe coordinators in December was the test run of this new process before it goes regionwide on Jan. 25.
Notable differences in this year’s methodology include:
- Surveyors will ask homeless individuals questions when they are encountered during the count, resulting in more surveys collected over a longer period of time.
- People in the temporary bridge shelters will also be surveyed as opposed to just being counted.
- Cars and tents will be knocked on instead of applying a standardized number to these structures.
- While the survey is shorter, it will attempt to collect different data points that will provide a more thorough image of homelessness in San Diego.
After a couple of mornings testing out this new process in Downtown, a handful of people got a better picture of homelessness — the chilly morning temperatures endured while sleeping outside, the lack of privacy, reported personal and societal causes contributing to the problem, and the value of a fresh pair of socks.
For many residents and business owners, homelessness can be a confusing and nuanced reality for Downtown living and working. Participating in the survey can serve as a great way to support official efforts to understand and address homelessness, as well as know names and faces of homeless neighbors. If you are interested in volunteering a few hours of your time for the count, you can register at rtfh.volunteerhub.com.
—Lana Harrison is the communications coordinator for the Downtown San Diego Partnership. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.