The latest homeless census strives to better understand the homeless population, particularly homeless youth
Peering out the backseat window of a moving car, Patrick Sin spots the first homeless person of the morning just before sunrise on Tuesday, Jan. 22. The man walking on the side of the road, near 41st Avenue, is wearing layers of dark tattered jackets and carrying a backpack. Sin recognizes him.
Sin himself has been homeless for about six years, and he’s putting his knowledge from time spent living on the streets to use as a guide for the biannual Santa Cruz County Homeless Census, which is conducted by Applied Survey Research (ASR), a Watsonville-based nonprofit social research organization.
Sin is paired with two fourth-year UC Santa Cruz students, volunteers Olivia Kirkland and Steve Aguirre, and rides along in the back seat, directing Kirkland as she drives through the Soquel hills, pointing out turnouts and coffee shops where he suspects homeless people might be starting their day. He recognizes many of the people they spot and has a solid understanding of where they spend their nights and their regular morning routines—getting coffee, sometimes looking for labor jobs near stores, and making their way to service providers for a free breakfast and shower.
Volunteers, each paired with a homeless guide, were deployed just after 6 a.m. from the Homeless Services Center (HSC) on Coral Street in Santa Cruz as well as from locations in Watsonville, Felton and Aptos. About 40 volunteers and 30 guides canvassed 52 census tracts around the county, with some teams covering more than one geographic region. There were about 25 volunteers and 15 guides who started the morning at the HSC.
The census, which began in 2000, aims to provide a “snapshot” of the county’s homeless population and its demographics, enabling service providers to better understand their needs and help them, says Deanna Zachary, director of community research and media relations for ASR. With that population snapshot, ASR uses a formula to calculate the number of people who experience homelessness, even for a very brief period of time, over the course of the year. For the 2011 census, ASR reported that approximately 9,041 people experienced homelessness Santa Cruz County throughout the year. The annual count for the 2009 census was almost half that, with an estimate of 4,624 people who experienced homelessness during that year.
The federal government mandates that these counts be conducted every other year in regions throughout the county (also called “Continuums of Care”) in order for homeless service organizations to maintain eligibility for federal funding.
“That’s the main goal,” Zachary says, “to meet that requirement. But we also do surveys to get a better sense of the population.”
The census volunteers count homeless individuals, families (which are defined as an adult with at least one minor), vehicles, encampments and abandoned buildings where the guides suspect people are squatting. The individuals are also categorized by their apparent ages: 17 and younger, 18 to 24, and 25 and older. This reflects a new emphasis on understanding the size of the homeless youth population.
Samantha Green, a senior research analyst for ASR, says the census data allows service groups to better assist people who are struggling and work toward ending homelessness.
“Recognizing the diversity of the population allows us to increase the diversity of services,” she says. “It allows us to tweak things on a smaller scale. The federal government requires that we show change, and show that, as a community, we’re working to end homelessness. With this point-in-time count, we’re able to get that broader picture.”
Over the course of about three hours, Sin, Kirkland and Aguirre tallied 20 homeless people and several vehicles they determined had people living inside in their census tract, but did not note any young people.
Volunteers are instructed to refrain from any contact with homeless individuals and simply do their best to estimate age and gender.
After the 2011 census, ASR reported a snapshot total of 2,771 homeless people in the county on the morning of the count, compared to 2,265 in 2009—an almost 20 percent increase.
Sin, however, estimates that the number people experiencing homelessness at one point it time is closer to 3,000. This was Sin’s third time participating as a guide for the census, he says.
“I think the census is a good thing,” he says, “but it’s mostly about getting the funding for service providers.”
Guides are paid $10 per hour for the four-hour census, which he says is important for him. When he and his team returned to HSC after finishing their count an hour early, Sin immediately went to the management asking for another way to finish out the last hour of pay time. Sin, 42, was born and raised in Aptos and made a living as a plumber for 20 years, he says, but a series of injuries forced him to stop working. After falling into a drug habit, he quickly found himself living in his vehicle on various road turnouts in Soquel and Aptos.
Sin is now drug free and is currently staying at the Paul Lee Loft at HSC.
He says his old job and time being homeless make him a great guide for the census.
“I have a working knowledge of the whole county because I used to be a service plumber, so I’ve been everywhere,” he explains.
While driving through the hills looking for homeless and signs of their camps, Sin points out places where he has spent nights and tells stories.
“This was one of my safe spots,” he says during a cigarette break on a quiet, wooded lane off the main road. “[I] never had any problems here.”
ASR counts the number of homeless people staying in shelters the night before the census and incorporates those figures into their total. The census information will then be supplemented with a survey of the homeless population during the following several weeks.
The 2009 census shows that, of the homeless people counted, 77 percent were unsheltered, while the remaining 23 percent were in shelter facilities around the county, including transitional housing facilities and motel voucher programs.
The results from the recently conducted census will be released this May, Zachary says.
She acknowledges that getting an exact count of the population is just about impossible, considering all of the variables on where a homeless person might be on the morning of the census, but says that the information they gather is still very valuable.
“There have been a lot of myths about homeless people historically—that they are [mostly] middle-aged homeless men and women,” Zachary says. “But what we’ve been finding is that there are all kinds of families, kids and seniors, so with this [census] we get a much more complex profile of what homelessness really does look like.”
Zachary says that young people, 18 and under, are the fastest growing demographic in the local homeless population.
During the 2011 point-in-time census, ASR counted 143 unaccompanied homeless children under 18 and youth under 25.
Green says that is a big increase compared to previous years.
“About one in five homeless were younger than 25,” she says. “And that’s reflected in the national numbers as well. It’s something that’s become such a problem that it’s being called ‘the lost generation.’”
After the economic downturn, a lot of young people were not able to get their first, entry-level job, move up to a second job, or ultimately access employee benefits, she explains. That has landed a lot of young people on the streets.
City Councilmember Don Lane participated in the census taking, covering the lower Westside, the Beach Flats, part of the San Lorenzo River Levee and a section of lower Pacific Avenue. He estimates their count at about 50 homeless people.
“I think the more hard data that we can get the better,” Lane says. “This isn’t a perfect process, but it’s so much better than just anecdotal commentary and people’s general impressions.”
Even though the census is not precise, Lane says that using the same methodology every two years allows ASR to see trends in the population.
He says working to identify the ages of homeless people is incredibly important, though his group only tallied one person who was clearly younger than 18.
ASR President Susan Brutschy says understanding the diversity of homeless demographics is crucial to providing effective services.
She says she is proud of Santa Cruz for paying special attention to homeless youth, but that she wouldn’t be surprised if that focus needs to be expanded in the next several years to include seniors—another fast-growing demographic among the homeless.
“It’s a changing population,” she says. “It’s really important to get a handle on the folks who are experiencing homelessness and understand what their evolving needs are and what the demographics look like. We’ve been doing this for many years and we’re starting to see more young people—more second- and third-generation homeless. That means they’ve never had a home in their whole life. Can you imagine? This helps us understand what their experiences are and how to marshal support at the community level.”