Out, numbered: As Sacramento undertakes its 2017 homeless tally, some worry hidden groups won’t be counted
Cold weather conditions, distrust of officials drive homeless residents into hiding
Demetrice “Deede” Wheelwright peered down the shadowed alley and frowned.
“There’s usually tons of people over here,” said her colleague.
“I know it,” said Wheelwright, 55, an eligibility specialist at Sacramento County’s Department of Human Assistance.
It was 9 p.m. on Wednesday, January 25, on Ninth Street between Q and R streets in downtown Sacramento. Wheelwright and four colleagues walked in reflective vests, armed with clipboards, flashlights and fast food gift cards, scouring sidewalks and alleys for signs of homeless residents to tally for Sacramento’s 2017 point-in-time count.
Formerly homeless herself, Wheelwright takes part in the count every two years. She and her colleagues were concerned, having found just one homeless resident so far that night—a number in no way representative of the folks they’re used to seeing out here.
Where could they be?
Every two years, the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development Department tasks regions throughout the country to hold the PIT count on a single January evening—an attempt to get a snapshot of the number of Americans on the streets, as well as to determine what cities need federal assistance the most.
The count is meaningful in the sense that Americans need to know the scope of the problem as they battle it.
But many question the accuracy of an attempt to count imperiled populations for whom it is safer not to be found at night, and worry that the 2017 count’s numbers won’t reflect the crisis’ deepening impact on the region. And while the tally is meant simply as a snapshot for HUD’s funding perspective, PIT count numbers are often bandied about by journalists, politicians and advocates as if they truly represent the region’s homelessness crisis.
“My main concern with the count is folks being undercounted, specifically the wildly vulnerable folks who are out there,” said Shannon Stevens, program director at Maryhouse, an emergency daytime drop-in center for women experiencing homelessness.
Last year, Maryhouse served 4,048 women, children and single fathers experiencing homelessness, a 21-percent increase from 2015. Stevens wondered if this rise would be accurately represented in the count, which totaled 2,659 in 2015.
“If you are a mother with two toddlers, it’s much less likely that you’re going to be out sleeping at a bus stop than it is that you’re going to find an abandoned garage or a friend or family member, so counters aren’t having that interaction with those vulnerable folks,” Stevens said.
There’s also the suspicion factor.
On the night of the PIT count, James “Faygo” Clark, a well-known activist who is also living homeless, warned his friends about the count in a Facebook post. “To my friends on the streets, [they’re] doing the homeless count tonight,” he wrote. “We know what that means, likely raids throughout the week!!”
While an accurate count could bring more funding and services to the region, the homeless community associates it with police sweeps, a perception complicated by the fact that counting teams were deployed from police departments in both Citrus Heights and Elk Grove. Wheelwright believes the police do sweeps on homeless camps before every count.
Homeless residents have developed a distrust for cops and park rangers in the region due to their carrying out controversial anti-camping laws. Stevens said Maryhouse guests often come in exhausted, saying they were rousted by police up to three times the night before.
“If it’s happening once, it’s happening too many times,” she said.
Judging from the daily intake numbers at Sacramento Steps Forward, the group tasked with ending homelessness in the region, there is a higher ratio of women-to-men than in previous years, said CEO Ryan Loofbourrow. He also heard reports of more families experiencing homelessness.
“Even if we don’t find them literally homeless, that’s not to say that there aren’t families that are in a perilous situation, or that tonight somebody sheltered them in their own home,” Loofbourrow said.
The Sacramento region is currently the fastest growing rent market in the nation, with year-to-year price increases at 11 percent. Housing vacancy rates have plummeted to 2.6 percent. The housing crisis has reached a fever pitch, which, of course, affects homelessness.
Loofbourrow anticipates a rise in the 2017 count, though he hopes to see a drop in homeless veterans—a population of particular concern for him. He sees the count as a benchmark for folks to use.
Homelessness experts, journalists and politicians cite PIT count statistics regularly and, usually, without qualification. They consider the numbers a marker to introduce the homelessness crisis to the general population. As far as in-depth numbers go, Sacramento Steps Forward constantly collects data to better paint the region’s homelessness picture. These numbers aren’t publicly available.
One such tool is the Housing Management Information System, a database built to connect as many of the region’s homeless residents with housing in a streamlined manner. Emergency service providers are concerned about the length of the queue.
Stevens believes that making the HMIS numbers available to the larger community would be good for public discourse on the scope of and possible solutions to homelessness in the region.
“I don’t know that I can call and ask for a breakdown of where people are sleeping at night or how old they are or what their individual experience is, but if that was something that was more readily available to the community on a monthly basis … I think we could have a little bit of a better handle of what actually is going on,” she said.
Sacramento City Councilman Steven Hansen and county Supervisors Don Nottoli and Phil Serna attended the 2017 count. Nottoli reflected on a board of supervisors meeting last November in which they gave motel vouchers to families with young children, after the Mustard Seed School for homeless children reported a sharp increase in families sleeping outside.
“You look at the mother talking about the choice that she’s making, you know, living in her car versus in the street or a motel, and the stress on her children, you can’t help but be moved,” Notolli said.
These governing bodies were scheduled to hold a joint community meeting on homelessness on Tuesday after SN&R’s print deadline. It was the first time in years the community has seen this much buy-in on the issue, leaving Stevens and Loofbourrow hopeful.
But the crisis looms large on everyone fighting homelessness. Stevens noted that one of the most troubling things she’s seen is a rise in women aged 60-80 seeking services at Maryhouse.
“I have to pull out physical seats and make room for wheelchairs and walkers because I have older adult women that have limited mobility that are sleeping outside every night,” she said.
On the night of the homeless count, a young colleague of Wheelwright’s called out on S Street near Sixth Street.
“There’s someone sleeping right there,” she said. “With a wheelchair.”
In total, the group tallied just four homeless residents on the trek north of downtown’s Southside Park.
“It’s too quiet. Too dang quiet,” Wheelwright said as she returned to her car.