Every two years, early on a cold and dark January morning, a small army of volunteers and trained homeless guides canvas Santa Cruz County to take a headcount (or point-in-time count) of the area’s homeless population. This year, on Jan. 25, a grand total of 2,771 homeless persons were counted.
The effort, known as the Homeless Census and Survey, is conducted in part at the request of the country’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department, which needs to see the homelessness figures to dole out funds. The survey portion of the study is conducted later on the same day in January to obtain more qualitative data.
The results from this year’s count were released Wednesday, July 27, at a press conference held at Twin Lakes Church in Aptos. The 2011 total of 2,771 people is a leap from the last count in 2009, which reported a total of 2,265 homeless counted.
However, the actual number of homeless people in the county is a much harder figure to come by, said Peter Connery, vice president at Applied Survey Research, the nonprofit firm that conducts the census, at Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s always an undercount,” he said. “Statistically it’s hard to say what percentage of an undercount it is, but suffice to say there are more homeless than we noted in this study.”
They estimate that as many as 9,041 persons in the county experience homelessness on an annual basis. Connery attributes this gap to the fact that census takers are counting a population that, often times, doesn’t want to be found, and certainly is not always easy to see. He noted that many people who are homeless 51 weeks of the year could have been off of the street on the night the count was conducted—which not only means they weren’t counted, but also that they weren’t considered homeless by HUD. “If you shared a hotel room or were in a hospital or jail [that night], you were not considered homeless by the HUD definition,” he said.
However, all homeless persons who spent the night in a local shelter were included in the count. (The census is conducted very early in the morning, before the shelters’ open their doors to let the night’s occupants out, ensuring that those homeless are not counted more than once.)
Other notable findings included a 39 percent increase from 2009 to 2011 in the number of people who were experiencing homelessness for the first time. “We think that’s very much economically-caused,” explained Connery.
Connery went on to highlight findings that counter what he said are popular local misconceptions about homelessness, chief among them that Santa Cruz—and its homeless services—attracts homeless people. When, in fact, the 2011 Census and Survey found that 67 percent lived in the county before becoming homeless (up 5 percent from 2009). “We’ve got a homegrown challenge here,” he said.
The report also found higher numbers of homeless living in cars, vans, makeshift vehicles and encampments than in years past, as well as increased numbers of unaccompanied youth. These numbers may be higher, explained Connery, because of increased efforts on the organizer’s part to seek them out.
The press conference ended with a call to action from Twin Lakes Pastor Mark Hillenga, who challenged Santa Cruz County residents to get involved in helping curb homelessness. “See a need, do something,” he said.
View the full 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey at phc-santacruz.org. Look for continued coverage of the findings in upcoming issues of Good Times.