Robert Ratner, director of the county's Housing for Health division, during Monday morning's PIT count.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘Still optimistic’: Homeless count leaders unfazed by early-morning challenges, hold out hope for a fitting metric

Despite the anecdotal difficulties experienced by groups who attempted to count the visible unsheltered homeless Monday morning, Santa Cruz County leaders say they are confident the point-in-time number will still be representative of the area’s immense problem.

It was Sheryl Norteye’s first time organizing a homeless count and her first time partaking in one. And even though she witnessed the challenges of taking a quick snapshot of the situation up close, Norteye remains hopeful that Monday’s counting process will return a number representative of the county’s undeniable homelessness crisis.

“There are always some hiccups, but I’m still optimistic that we will get the numbers that we need — we just have to wait and see,” said the Housing For Health (H4H) analyst. “The data is really critical to help us make the arguments to the state and to the county board of supervisors to get additional support.”

How will the count data be used? And will it have a significant impact on how much funding the county gets to address homelessness?

The majority of the funding the county receives will come from the state of California, which injected a historic $14 billion into homelessness the past year. Much of that funding, to pay for programs like Project Homekey, is already committed. H4H director Robert Ratner said the trend line can help determine eligibility for other funding sources.

“The trend line and consistency of the count methodology are the most important things to me so we can track change over time with this metric,” he said. “California is shifting policy to reward positive trends with their funding so they want to start to see reductions in HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) and PIT data as evidence of effective investments.”

The federal government supplies other funding. While it demands that counties perform the PIT, it doesn’t tie funding to the result, says Norteye.

The major value, PIT organizers say, is how the count illuminates details of the issues on the ground.

Many of the teams Lookout shadowed over the course of four to five hours Monday, including that of Norteye and Ratner, struggled to locate people, especially in the earliest predawn hour, in locations where they would normally be seen.

“Since there is not a national standard approach to collecting this information, I am concerned that policymakers and funders seem to be relying more heavily on these estimate counts to make funding decisions,” Ratner said.

The federal government mandates early morning for this count. The reasoning is straightforward: People aren’t on the move at that hour, and double counting is less likely to occur. But when unsheltered people tuck themselves into tents, vehicles and deeply wooded shrubbery, it becomes somewhat of a visual guessing game played under very low-light conditions.

How then is the number arrived at?

Applied Survey Research, which performed the Santa Cruz count among nine others the past month, calculates the average likelihood, for instance, of there being one, two or more people in a tent or vehicle.

As John Connery of Watsonville-based ASR explains, the algorithm is complicated and is connected to the survey portion of the count that will happen over the next few weeks. Paid volunteers, many experiencing homelessness themselves, will attempt to get at least 400 unhoused participants to answer an in-depth set of questions.

“We ask the question that gives us data for each one of the four dwelling types: tents. cars, RVs and vans. With each one of those, we’ll gather a separate multiplier, and we hope that we get enough from this year to give us statistical confidence in that number,” Connery said. “If we don’t, we use previous year’s data to sort of bump up our sample size to make sure that that number is statistically valid. And it allows us to be confident that the multiplier we’re using is representative of how many people, on average, stay in each one of those dwelling types.”

For those reasons, the actual PIT count number won’t be finalized for weeks. Connery said the typical multiplier for Santa Cruz County in those four categories ranges from 1.1 to 1.8. RVs, for instance, might range on the higher side of that number, while tents and cars toward the lower.

A team including Sheryl Norteye (right) and Robert Ratner (second from right) of the county's Housing for Health
A team including Sheryl Norteye (right) and Robert Ratner (second from right) of the county’s Housing for Health division along the San Lorenzo River on Monday morning.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And the surveying will have to happen fast because, while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) moved back the count date due to the Omicron variant, it did not push back the deadline to turn in the final PIT results. Those are due to HUD in mid-May, Connery said.

Beyond the physical outdoor count of adults, ASR conducted a separate count of youth that happened later in the day. Further, all shelters in the county submitted the number of people in beds Monday morning.

Beyond the final number and survey results that come in, probably by May or June, Norteye said the experience of pulling together like-minded people working to solve homelessness goes beyond any metrics.

“This is near and dear to my heart — I know we can’t end homelessness overnight. I believe little drops of water make a mighty ocean,” she said. “With the individuals like me all over the county coming together to find a way to resolve this — do the PIT count, do the surveys, get the number, get the data and then formulate policies and make cases to be able to get additional funding — that is the best that we can do. We can continue to push.”

Ratner said he believes the inherent challenges of this process were handled as well as possible.

“Conducting the count during a pandemic was more difficult due to the lack of in-person training and support, connections with guides, and opportunities for pre-planning and connection,” he said. “Given all of these factors, I think our community did an excellent job of conducting the count.”