The homeless numbers game

This year’s tally marked a rise in Sacramento’s homeless residents. But are the numbers accurate?

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink

Last week, Sacramento Steps Forward released the numbers from the 2013 Homeless Street Count, a federally mandated biennial tally of all the homeless people found during the course of a four-hour time frame.

In total, volunteers in the count done on January 24 found 2,538 homeless people in the region, 786 of them unsheltered. These numbers represented a small bump up from 2011’s total, which tallied 2,358—but a drop from 2011’s unsheltered count of 955.

The region found 432 chronically homeless individuals—a rise from 2011’s 353 (a 22.4 percent increase). There was also a rise in persons in homeless families—801 this year, up from 2011’s 604 (a 32.6 percent increase).

But what do these numbers really mean, and how accurate are they? Has the homeless population really risen in Sacramento since 2011? Or has it been this bad for years? Stroll around North C and 16th streets today—historically, the area is known for its homeless population—and ask yourself if we really have only 786 unsheltered homeless living in Sacramento at any given moment.

Are we wasting our time with the tally?

Sacramento’s homeless count has historically been a controversial undertaking, with critics such as those at the Sacramento Housing Alliance claiming that findings are always low and in no way reflect the marked homelessness problem. I could also point out a few of these critics in the SN&R newsroom.

It behooves our nation’s homeless to go unseen in the evenings, and this year’s Sacramento count took place in wet conditions, between the hours of 8 p.m. and midnight. Additionally, the survey is still in its nascent years; officials continue work to improve methodology.

Steps Forward took the reins from the county for the first time ever in this year’s count, greatly increasing the likelihood of methodological differences from previous years. In January, volunteers agreed that things were run differently than in 2011. The count’s Midtown launch site, for example, was more chaotic than in previous years.

Anyone working in policy, however, will tell you that the first step in dealing with a problem is compiling data on the subject. This is why officials believe the homeless count to be important, and why the city must continue to work on improving tally strategies in the years to come.

So, while 2013’s numbers may not tell us much, it’s important that Sacramento continues to work toward better understanding the scope of the region’s homelessness problem.