Making the homeless count

Has Sacramento’s crisis on the streets gotten so bad it can’t be quantified?

Photos by Karlos Rene Ayala

A silhouetted figure stays cloaked in the shadows. Hunched in his old hoodie, he shivers near a lonely palm tree that’s bathed in the light of a faded car wash. The surveyors can barely see him at first. Approaching, they learn his name is Johnny. A pair shoes sits on a folded blanket at his side. He has a baby stroller filled with coats, water bottles and a red, disassembled fishing pole.

It’s the second night of Sacramento County’s biennial Point-in-Time Count, which attempts to gauge how many people are living on the street. The volunteer surveyors talking to Johnny on January 31 include three housing specialists from the state, two sheriff’s deputies and an employee of Sacramento Steps Forward, which coordinates the region’s homeless services and programs.

They ask Johnny questions. He says he’s lived in Sacramento County since 1973, and that he’s been homeless for at least two decades. The surveyors want Johnny’s opinion on how local governments could better help him.

“Storage units,” he replies in a weather-choked voice.

Johnny also mentions some health issues and says he served in the military, but that the Veterans Administration somehow lost the paperwork that would admit him into its hospitals. One of the deputies standing nearby, Tim Yee, has discussed the VA issue with Johnny before. This debris-strewn pocket of Tokay Park is part of Yee’s patrol area. He has worked on the county’s homeless outreach team and is part of the sheriff’s problem-oriented policing division. Yee recently offered to drive Johnny to the county’s veterans’ services office or the VA Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, but so far, he hasn’t taken up the offer. Now, the deputy takes another shot at convincing him.

“You’re a good man,” Johnny says with a smile. He gives Yee a wave and begins pacing off into the darkened nowhere of unincorporated South Sacramento.

The question of which services work best for which individuals on the streets—and how to muster more resources—is the reason these volunteers are outside on this cool, cloudy night. The Point-in-Time Count is vital to keeping the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development involved with local homeless programs and to securing federal funding. But while the count will likely be the homeless tally most cited in political speeches, it’s only one of several—and conflicting—numbers about the scope of the crisis.

The 2017 Point-in-Time Count identified 3,665 people living on Sacramento County’s streets. Yet that same year, Sacramento State University estimated 3,600 of its own students were homeless. Then, in March 2017, a unique CalFresh food program reported 13,362 enrollees in Sacramento identifying as homeless. Perhaps more eye-opening, Sacramento County school districts counted 10,181 homeless students for the 2014-15 school year.

The differences between these numbers boil down to varying counting methods and definitions of homelessness. But with Sacramento’s mayor and City Council pushing to get 2,000 people off the streets over the next three years, the size of that achievement depends greatly on which counting strategy comes closest to reality. If the city leaders leverage $108 million in new funding to realize the mayor’s vision, will they be solving 54 percent of the crisis (based on the Point-in-Time count), or only 15 percent (based on the CalFresh figure).

For Ben Avey, chief public affairs officer for Sacramento Steps Forward, no matter how well the counters do, the resulting numbers won’t tell the whole tale.

“There’s a frequent desire to say, ’According to the Point-in-Time number for 2017, when we solve for 3,665, the problem will be solved,’” Avey notes. “Well, then, in 2017 we already solved the problem, because we housed 3,800 people. But if you look on the street, no we didn’t, and that’s because 7,870 people newly identified as being homeless in the same year.”

Even undercounts can be startling

Truck lights wash the legs of a windmill towering over a barren lot on Florin Road. Just yards away, two men huddle under some power lines and a crescent ornamental wall. Their belongings are spread across the dim patch of cement where they sleep. The survey team begins to engage them. The men agree to talk, but the older one is struggling with his words.

Talking to people with health issues is just one of the challenges the counters face. Fear is another one. Ten minutes earlier, a man clearly living in his car declined to speak with the surveyors, who can include him in their numerical count but won’t get any demographic data. The same happens when they encounter zipped-up tents or shadowy cars people are sleeping in. The counters are told not be intrusive so they don’t knock on windows or rattle tents. Instead, occupied tents get automatically counted as three individuals. So do vehicles, unless the surveyors can see a specific number inside.

All of these methods have been refined by experts at Sacramento State University, but they’ve been calculated around HUD’s strict definition of homelessness that only counts people literally on the streets, or in tents or cars. Those in emergency shelters also get counted—but not people who pool money to escape the winter weather in a cheap motel room for a night or two, a common practice in Sacramento. Surveyors have tried to reduce this blind spot by holding the count at the end of the month, when people with limited Social Security or disability income are most likely to be out of money and back on the streets.

The Point-in-Time count also doesn’t catch someone staying on a friend’s couch or in a garage temporarily. The reprieve might only be for a day or a week, but the off-and-on again homeless remain invisible.

Squatters often don’t get counted either, though Sacramento building inspectors and fire investigators say squatting in vacant buildings is common. Someone staying in a structure not fit for human habitation does qualify under HUD’s definition, but they’re not likely to be found by surveyors.

Finally, Sacramento Steps Forward says that HUD’s method has historically undercounted families and unaccompanied youth. The agency is trying new tactics this year, but still anticipates an undercount.

Even with all its limitations, the Point-in-Time count showed a 30 percent jump in Sacramento’s homeless numbers between 2015 and 2017. Many service providers suspect that heavy rains and flooding just before the 2017 tally pushed hundreds of homeless from the greenways and out into the open. Also during those two years, rents in the region rose sharply as the affordable housing supply plummeted.

“We’re seeing more and more people on the street who got there because it was a $50 rent increase that finally pushed them out,” Avey says, “and it’s because that was the fifth or sixth $50 rent increase being given to someone on a fixed income.”

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Tim Yee tries to offer assistance to a homeless veteran named Johnny in South Sacramento during the Point-in-Time count.

Visibility overload

The survey team stops along a chain-link fence blocking a creek bed cluttered in weeds and brush. The only visibility comes from far-off street lamps and the fluorescent rail of a lone taco stand in the distance. Yee moves his flashlight through darkness, and its beam suddenly stops on a girl’s eyes staring back from the opposite bank. She speaks up, telling him that there’s people living along the dry edge of the canal. Moments later one of them, a man named Jose, moves through a hole in the fence.

Jose is 45 and says he has been homeless for 10 years. He says he works every day as a landscaper, but sends most of his money back to his mother in Mexico. In the next breath, he stresses that he never takes government assistance or help from anyone. “I don’t take anything,” Jose says with a nod. “I always pay my own way.”

The elaborate camp Jose lives in is unseen by motorists. But along North B Street and stretches of Stockton Boulevard and in corners of the River District, vast encampments can be spotted daily. That has helped bring Sacramento’s homeless population into an unavoidable light, prompting many residents to demand action.

The varying methods of counting the homeless may create confusion about what a herculean task that is, but there’s another set of numbers also making headlines—and also causing head-scratching.

In summer 2017, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg landed the city a $64 million federal grant for medical treatment and supportive services around homelessness. Separate from that, in recent years HUD has awarded roughly $20 million annual Continuum of Care grants to Sacramento Steps Forward that depend on the Point-in-Time counts. Then, following the decision to declare a shelter emergency, the city and county picked up another $18 million from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program.

That may lead some to believe plenty of money is being aimed at the crisis. It’s not that simple: Most of the $20 million grant is being spent on permanent supportive housing for people who were previously homeless and are deemed most likely to die on the streets. Service providers say if that grant money ever evaporated, most of these people would be homeless again within days or weeks.

The federal health grant and state emergency funds, on the other hand, are new monetary sources, though each has stipulations on how it can be spent.

For weeks Steinberg has been challenging each City Council member to identify a location for a new triage facility within their respective district. But how effective these shelters are, if they’re built at all, is also framed by the Point-in-Time number. Some politicians have used the number loosely in speeches and presentations, failing to provide context that it underestimates the problem.

“I think our elected officials take every opportunity to minimize what the problem is because it’s not in their PR interests,” says Nikki Jones, who works with Sacramento Homeless Organizing Coalition. “Their politics and their top-down approach are so far off from really solving the problem of homelessness that there is a reason they don’t want to put the full scope of it in front of the public.”

She isn’t the only homeless advocate who worries about how this year’s Point-in-Time count could be misinterpreted and misused, especially since there’s a chance that better weather conditions, extremely hidden camps and other factors could suggest that homelessness decreased since 2017.

Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness says that would not reflect reality and should not be used to make policy.

“I think most service providers do believe that homelessness is increasing in Sacramento,” Erlenbusch says. “And if the numbers are down, you could just walk outside my office, look down Garden Highway, and see all those tents.”