Homegrown Issue

news3Census reveals majority of homeless population lived locally before becoming homeless

Last month, the Watsonville-based research organization Applied Survey Research (ASR) released its biennial census of the Santa Cruz County homeless population. While the numbers represent an alarming increase, the percentage of respondents who indicated they lived locally before becoming homeless falls inside of the normal spectrum for other surveyed counties, says ASR Vice President Peter Connery.

He says that on average 65 to 80 percent of the homeless population in the counties that ASR surveys—including Santa Clara, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz—lived locally prior to becoming homeless. This year, Santa Cruz County had one of the lowest percentages, with 72 percent of the homeless population claiming to have lived locally.

That percentage has increased slightly in each census for the past four years. In 2011, 67 percent of survey respondents said they had been living in the county when they became homeless and 62 percent answered the same in 2009.

Connery does not see these lower percentages as an indicator that homeless people are actually coming here to access shelters.

“One of the things we know is that folks are not really coming to Santa Cruz for services, because in the big scheme, there aren’t that many services,” Connery says.

He adds that the increasing number of unsheltered homeless people in the county is evidence that the services inventory is not that significant.

“We find generally that people become homeless here or that they have lived here previously, or that they have friends or family living in the area,” Connery says of ASR’s census work.

This year, the population of unsheltered homeless is reported at 82 percent. In 2011, 77 percent of the homeless population—2,125 people—was unsheltered.

In ASR’s point-in-time count, the results show that volunteers counted 3,536 homeless people all over the county, living on the streets, in cars, back alleys, and encampments. That represents a 28 percent increase over the 2011 census, when the point-in-time count was reported at 2,771.

In Monterey County, the 2013 point-in-time count is 2,590 homeless people, an increase from 2,507 in 2011. Of that number, 79 percent said they had been living in Monterey County before becoming homeless.

In Santa Clara County, which has an overall population of approximately 1.8 million, the 2013 point-in-time count is 7,631, an 8 percent increase over the 7,067 in 2011. Eighty-seven percent of their respondents reported having lived in the county at the time they most recently became homeless.

In Sonoma County, the homeless census population is reported to have gone down in their point-in-time count from 4,539 in 2011, to 4,280 this year. Eighty percent of the respondents reported that they had lived in Sonoma County prior to becoming homeless.

In Santa Cruz County, Connery attributes the increase in the homeless population to the exceptionally high cost of housing, a 7.5 percent unemployment rate (which is actually lower than it has been in five years), unmet mental health needs, and census volunteers’ improved tactics on counting homeless people.

“Life is still very hard for a lot of people,” Connery says. But, “every year we do [the census], the community participants get better at the count. We get better at outreach and we’re probably finding more folks than we have because we’re better at it.”

Connery does not, however, attribute this year’s 28 percent increase simply to better counting. He believes it can also be attributed to the discovery of more people living in their vehicles.

“We’re seeing a big increase in people living in their vehicles, and people living in cars can be very hard to find,” Connery says. “We made a concerted outreach effort this year to try profile [people living in their vehicles] more effectively than we have in the past.”

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