An unhoused man trying to stay dry under a bridge over the San Lorenzo River on Dec. 23, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Unhoused Santa Cruz: On the ground, Santa Cruz counts its homeless

On Monday, about 100 people will comb the county and Lookout’s correspondent team will be with them, filing reports on what could be an important tool in countering homelessness.

Monday at 5 a.m., about 100 people will spread across the 607 square miles of Santa Cruz County, looking to tally up everyone living in shelters, in their cars, in encampments by the San Lorenzo River and in all of the hidden ravines and places people living on the edge of our society go to rest.

Those counters include community leaders on homelessness issues, among them some familiar faces: Robert Ratner, the county’s director of Housing for Health; Phil Kramer, Housing Matters’ executive director; and Don Lane, a two-time Santa Cruz mayor and interim governing board chair for Housing Santa Cruz County.

Essentially, everyone involved — directly or peripherally — acknowledges that this “point in time” count is an imperfect tool for producing an accurate number on this county’s homelessness problem. Weather can play a part, and finding people in the nooks and crannies that house them is difficult. Even without those challenges, the census is simply a snapshot, and the true number of homeless people varies by the day, month and season.

The count is one of the first steps to understand the unhoused population, and it — along with an in-depth survey in the one to two weeks that follow — will provide deeper understanding.

As volunteers fan out Monday, they’ll do it with two numbers in their minds of those putting homelessness strategies into place.

The most recent PIT count, in 2019, came up with a total of 2,167 people. That three-year-old number — the usual every-other-year count in 2021 was postponed by the pandemic — stands against the county’s count of 5,899 people who came into contact with the Homeless Management Information System in the first six months of 2021.

As the five-hour count rolls through the morning, Lookout’s correspondents will accompany the counters, filing dispatches from around the county’s diverse geography. Unlike in 2019, there is no rain in the forecast. The new count total won’t be publicly released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) until later this spring.

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Our coverage Monday expands on our work earlier this month describing both the purposes and pitfalls of the PIT count and why Santa Cruz County remains stubbornly a capital of homelessness.

Who does the count and why? The short answer: Federal funding — distributed by HUD — is largely based on the results. The county cannot at this point attribute specific amounts tied to the figure.

The county pays Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research to plan and conduct the count as well as a more in-depth survey one to two weeks after the count. The cost this year is $75,000.

While some homeless advocates believe that’s money poorly spent, county officials say it’s an essential tool.

Brent Adams, who has run the Warming Center Program over the past nine years, said the sole purpose of the county is to “get the pennies that they get from the federal government, but it means nothing for us as a community.”

However, for Ratner, director of the county’s newly formed Housing For Health division, that’s an oversimplification. The count, buttressed by the survey that quickly follows, are two tools that help government groups, nonprofits and other advocates understand the need and better work together. In fact, it’s important enough that he wants to do it annually rather than biannually, if he can find funding.

How the count works

John Connery has worked as a project manager on point-in-time counts across the Bay Area since joining Applied Survey Research in 2013. It’s the 11th count ASR has conducted in Santa Cruz County dating to 2005.

Connery has lined up about 100 counters — at least 50 of whom are volunteers, with the others being part of city, county and nonprofit agencies — who will work alongside ASR’s team of five.

The pandemic, he says, has made signing up volunteers more difficult. Connery leaned on local homelessness advocates, as well as city and county officials, to round out this year’s numbers and ensure there would be enough people to conduct the count.

“It’s one of those things where we’ll never have as many people as we would like … we’ll be able to conduct the count with the number of folks that we have,” he said. “I know for certain we have 35 teams ready to go.”

This year, each team is made of at least two people, and sometimes three, adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols.

The count typically begins around 5 a.m., and usually takes between two and five hours, depending on the number of volunteers. HUD guidance recommends this time frame, believing that the early morning hours will find most people still sleeping and not on the move. In 2019, the count involved about 100 paid workers and volunteers — amounting to about 60 teams — and lasted from 4:30 to 10 a.m.

In the one to two weeks following the count, both paid and trained ASR staff members and county officials will conduct an in-depth survey of a randomly selected number of both temporarily sheltered and unsheltered individuals. The survey provides the county and HUD on the experiences of homelessness. ASR will survey 400-500 people.

Ratner, who spent 14 years in a similar role for homelessness position with Alameda County before taking over the county’s Housing for Health division in November 2020, says it’s more than the number that he is looking to gain from Monday’s count.

“We’re definitely trying to get an understanding of how people lose their housing … we have to understand what has happened in our community, causing people to lose stability,” he said.

Digital tools for a better count

This year’s counters will use new tools. They include a smartphone-based counting app and digital mapping tools. The goal: better accuracy and improved safety conditions for the counters and the unhoused individuals, especially with the continued precautions surrounding COVID-19.

Officials in Monterey County used a similar system to the one planned for Santa Cruz for their own count last month. Roxanne Wilson, who heads Monterey County’s Continuum of Care program via a nonprofit called the Coalition of Homeless Services Providers, said it was a huge improvement over previous years.

“Over the past two years, we’ve used that same app to track where people are, to track when we’ve identified encampments. And now we’re using that same app for us to do the PIT,” she said. “It’s always been something of interest to us, because we felt like the numbers will turn faster.”

ASR’s Connery said he will use the same app — which includes training videos, maps and the locations of high traffic areas for the area’s unhoused population — for the Santa Cruz County count.

“There’s also a lot of advantageous stuff that it gives in terms of being able to add data quicker,” he said.

A scene at the homeless encampment at San Lorenzo Park on Dec. 23, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Monterey County believes it has now more accurately counted its population, squaring its own PIT count with the numbers captured through its own ongoing systems, says Wilson.

With this year’s count, Wilson expects to add at least 1,000 more individuals to Monterey’s 2019 findings — 2,422 persons — and will be able use that more realistic number to provide help where and when it is needed most. A more accurate number, Wilson said, could lead to more federal funding that can make more of a difference to the unhoused.

By using the same app in Santa Cruz that Wilson and Monterey County used, Ratner believes that this year’s findings could demonstrate more of the local need, while still acknowledging all county and city programs need to collaborate to have more insightful information about the unhoused.

“The intention is to walk that whole geographic region, but there are going to be limits like there’s just places that there’s not enough time and not enough volunteers to really get a full picture,” he said.

What the Lookout team will be doing

For Monday’s count, Lookout will be providing on-the-ground coverage from various locations throughout the county. Watch for up-to-the-minute updates from our correspondents’ social media accounts and a wrap-up of what happened by the end of the day.

We’ll be providing updates on how the count is conducted, what encampments look like in different parts of the county, and what the unhoused and volunteers alike take away from the count. Our goal is to provide you with insights on what transpires during this count, and give further guidance for what we can expect from the findings when they are released in the coming months.

The team

Dan Evans — @EditorDanEvans
Mark Conley — @MarkConley
Grace Stetson — @grace_m_stetson
Hillary Ojeda — @HillaryMOjeda
Kevin Painchaud — @aptosphoto
Max Chun — @chaxmun
Wallace Baine — @wallacebaine