A woman exits her tent at the Benchlands in San Lorenzo Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

How many are homeless in Santa Cruz County? An already COVID-delayed count pushed by Omicron

Though the Point-In-Time Count normally happens every two years, next month will be the first time Santa Cruz County’s unhoused have been tallied since before the pandemic. And that date itself was pushed back a month due to the Omicron surge. The last time — in January 2019 — the unhoused totaled 2,167 people, though many believe the current number is far greater.

The What: This year’s Point-in-Time Count — an observational count of the county’s unhoused population — has been delayed a month due to health and staffing challenges associated with the Omicron-related surge. The 2021 count was canceled because of COVID-19. Applied Survey Research, the organization that has run the count in Santa Cruz County since 2005, told Lookout on Friday that the count was pushed from Jan. 21 to Feb. 28.

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The So What: Typically conducted every two years in the last 10 days of January, the PIT Count is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help determine levels of federal funding. Due to the delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, HUD is still using the findings from the most recent count in 2019 in its calculations.

This has led to concerns from city, county and nonprofit officials who say there isn’t enough funding to address the growing need locally or nationwide. And this year, Santa Cruz County officials said they want to start conducting the count yearly, which could improve accuracy and increase funding amounts.

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By the numbers: From the PIT Count on Jan. 31, 2019 — conducted over the course of five hours beginning at 4:30 a.m. — the county found 2,167 unhoused individuals. The organization conducted a multi-question survey over the following weeks to get more specifics. Some of the major findings included:

  • 78% of the homeless population lives outdoors rather than in a shelter.
  • 59% are over the age of 25, 67% are male and 67% are white.
  • 14% are under the age of 18.
  • 74% say they were county residents when they became homeless and 34% say they have been in the area for at least a decade.
  • 31% said they had jobs while 52% said they were unable to work.
  • 23% said they had been in foster care previously.
  • 28% said they had spent one night or more in jail, prison or juvenile hall in the past year.
  • Top six reasons that led to homelessness: Lost job, eviction, alcohol/drug use, family/domestic violence, landlord raised rent, or due to a divorce, separation or breakup.

What the research team says: ASR’s John Connery, who’s worked there full-time since 2013, told Lookout the extension was due to a combination of needs, including health and staffing challenges posed by the current spike in cases. The extension was approved by HUD earlier this year.

“This extended time will allow us to recruit additional volunteers, count in a post-surge timeframe, and also enable us to refine efforts to count special populations,” he said.

With the already-delayed count, Connery said there’s been even greater interest in what the count will show this year.

“HUD really wants and needs the numbers for funding issues and getting an idea of what’s going on,” he said. “Point-in-time counts are basically the best look at the extent and prevalence of homelessness we currently have in the country — to go a long time without them makes it tough on a lot of people.”

What’s next: ASR will continue conducting outreach for volunteers for the newly scheduled date. Following the count and the survey, the county will likely send their results from the report to HUD in the late spring or early summer.