Coast Life

Here’s what putting a number on homelessness looked like, from Santa Cruz to Watsonville & beyond

As Santa Cruz County attempted to put a number to its homeless population for the first time since 2019 early Monday morning with the biennial “point-in-time” count, Lookout’s team of journalists embarked on ride-alongs with some of those involved with the enumeration. The number of people visible to count was surprising to many involved.

What does trying to count up the unsheltered population in Santa Cruz County look and feel like?

The Lookout staff rose well before dawn Monday morning to find out, joining up with a number of volunteer groups spread around the county to get an up-close view of the first (normally) biennial point-in-time count in three years.

On Monday, about 100 people will comb the county and Lookout’s correspondent team will be with them, filing reports on...

One common theme emerged from those groups wandering by car and foot through sectors of Santa Cruz, Watsonville and the San Lorenzo Valley with flashlights in hand: It is a very difficult task.

Logistical challenges — like knowing where exactly to look in heavily wooded areas and how to use the new phone app — are part of that. The pandemic delayed the scheduled 2021 count by a year — and then another six weeks in 2022 due to the Omicron surge. All of that added up to limited chances for in-person training and volunteer outreach.

But the main surprise to observers throughout the county: not finding folks in places you’d expect to see them — including along the San Lorenzo Riverwalk.

John Connery of Watsonville-based Applied Survey Research said between 75 and 90 individuals were part of the groups that spread around the county from roughly 5 to 10 a.m.

The official tally, which won’t be released until later this spring, is used by the federal government to allocate homelessness funding. But it’s only the first part of the project, which now turns to surveying people experiencing homelessness over the next few weeks.

Here is what our team of Lookout reporters observed, from the Westside of Santa Cruz to Highlands Park in Ben Lomond to the sloughs of Watsonville.