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Decrease In San Diego's Homeless Population Questioned

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The number of people who are homeless in San Diego County has decreased since last year, according to the results of this year's point in time count. But a new method of counting and questions about how accurate last year’s count was, has cast doubt on whether or not there has been a decrease in the homeless population.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 The release of the results of this year's point in time. Homeless count was overshadowed earlier this week by the synagogue shooting in Poway and at first glance, the number of homeless individuals reported in San Diego County show some good news, but a new method of counting and questions about how accurate last year's count was. Put a cloud over numbers showing a decrease in the homeless population. Joining me by Skype is voice of San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt and Lisa, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. There was a slight drop in the number of homeless individuals in this year's count. Can you tell us about the numbers?

Speaker 2: 00:37 So this year the regional task force on the homeless had more than 1,500 volunteers go out a few days in late January and they counted approximately 8,100 people who were living on city and county streets and also in shelters.

Speaker 1: 00:55 And that number is lower than last year, is that right?

Speaker 2: 00:58 Yes, it is lower than last year. But one thing that I have been hearing a lot is these numbers are released is that it is not apples to apples with last year's number, there was a different approach. Um, and there was actually a push from the federal government to take another tack with this count than had been used in past years.

Speaker 1: 01:17 Right? They asked the people in the regional task force for the homeless to change their methodology. What were those changes?

Speaker 2: 01:25 So for years, I'm the regional task force on the homeless and it's volunteers had gone out usually in the early morning hours and late January one morning and they would count people that they saw sleeping outside and then count tents and vehicles that they saw that looked like they were housing people. And then they would go and survey at a later time about 20% of the unsheltered population and use that to come up with some averages that they would then use as a multiplier. So if you saw a tent or um, you saw a vehicle, you might say, oh, on average there are about two people staying there. So they would use that to help calculate the numbers. And then of course, as they still do, they would go and get information from homeless service providers about the number of people staying in shelters or other programs. But this year the push was to try to talk to as many people as they could to count people rather than vehicles or tense as in years past

Speaker 1: 02:21 also last year, people living in Rvs were left out of the count and this year they were added.

Speaker 2: 02:28 Yes. This year they were included. The issue last year was that the task force was really grappling with this population. There had been some conversations playing out among homeless organizations like the task force and the federal government agency, Hud, which oversees counts about how to best count people living in RVs because there are some people who live in Rvs who consider themselves homeless. And then there are others who may be travelers are in a different situation. Um, and ultimately after some, the task force last year did actually count Rvs, but decided not to include those numbers in its count, which was a difference from previous years. They had typically included RVs and applied the multiplier that I talked about a moment ago, um, but decided not to include them. And it didn't really come out until after the numbers came out last year. So there was a lot of concern about that and questions about whether that could have potentially resulted in hundreds of people being left out of the count who otherwise would have been counted in past years. So this year the task force did go out and actually try to engage with people staying in Rvs and to, you know, to ask them, do you consider yourself homeless? And they would also make observations to see does it look like this person could be considered homeless. There may be staying in an RV that's not in great condition. And they counted 74 people in Rvs, which is a number that's a bit smaller than a lot of folks expected.

Speaker 1: 03:57 Lisa, remind us why this point in time homeless count is conducted in the first place.

Speaker 2: 04:01 So the federal government requires that a regions across the nation can duct this homeless count in order to qualify for federal funding. Um, and more recently it's been used to um, at a state level to try to figure out how much money a region might be eligible to receive as part of some of these bursts of homeless funding at the state level.

Speaker 1: 04:22 Considering all the changes we've been talking about and more that we haven't talked about, how reliable is the point of time? Coun

Speaker 2: 04:29 you know, one thing that I hear a lot is, you know, it's one data point. It is a snapshot in time and even the regional task force will say you know it best. It is the minimum number of homeless San Diego against that we have living in our community. What I'm hearing a lot more folks talking about is about year round numbers. So this year's press conference was interesting because they weren't just talking about this point in time number, but timber or Kohler, who's the new CEO of the task force brought up another number a year round number. They, I'm looking at their homeless management information system that they oversee. We're able to determine that last year, 27,850 people used homeless services across the county. That is a much larger number than the 8,100 that I spoke of earlier. And there's a lot of interest in digging into this bigger number, more learning, more about that. And in some ways it's easier to track what's happening with those folks in that larger number because they're in a system that allows for more tracking of what services they're obtaining and what sorts of outcomes they're getting. On the

Speaker 1: 05:37 policy side of this, just yesterday, the county board of supervisors approved doubling it's low income and homeless housing funding from 25 to $50 million. How has that money been used so far?

Speaker 2: 05:50 Thus far, the county says that about 453 affordable housing units are in the works. They're hoping to a total of, um, from each of these $25 million burst, at least 1000 affordable housing units. Now I would note that this is a pretty significant thing for the county. So back in 2017, the county voted to institute this fund. They're actually pulling money from their reserves to support affordable housing, which is a first time thing for a county that has had a pretty large bank account and not really gotten super involved in the housing game. Um, so a lot of folks are watching this and seeing that this second vote to add another 25 million, pulling it from the reserves again is a pretty big deal for the county. Is it too soon to tell what kind of impact of these housing projects are having on the number of homeless people in the county? Well, that's a great question. I would say that there's a much greater need than just 2000 housing units, but significant, you know, to have another 2000 units if they do come online in addressing this problem. I've been speaking with voice of San Diego reporter Lisa Halverstadt. Lisa, thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.