Women and children last: Sacramento’s biennial homeless census overlooked families this year

Family-oriented service providers didn’t conduct morning-after audit as in previous count

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the July 27, 2017, issue.

If her math is right, the 28-year-old Nikki Jones has been experiencing homelessness for about half of her life. Her three young sons? They started even earlier.

Jones says she’s mostly been living on her own since she was 14. Currently, her two oldest boys are in the custody of her father, while Jones and her youngest shuttle between friends’ spare couches.

“I’m between a few different places right now,” Jones said.

The recent census that showed Sacramento County’s homeless population rising 38 percent in two years didn’t account for people like Jones.

One of the tiniest glimmers of hope from this month’s otherwise demoralizing report was that there were slightly fewer families and young people located on county streets when canvassers conducted their biennial point-in-time homeless count during a night this past January.

According to this year’s count, the number of unaccompanied homeless individuals age 24 and younger dropped from 303 to 242 in two years. Canvassers also found 22 percent fewer homeless families—with 186 families totaling 572 people counted on January 25. Only six of the families were unsheltered; the rest were in shelters or transitional housing, according to the report by Sacramento State University and Sacramento Steps Forward.

Those numbers aren’t close to being true.

These biennial point-in-time, or PIT, counts are widely considered to underestimate the true scope of any community’s homeless population, as they’re conducted on a single night and adhere to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s strict definition of homelessness.

Researchers from Sacramento State’s Institute for Social Research, who were brought on this year to improve the count, acknowledge this, writing in their report that it’s “likely that the PIT methodology is systematically undercounting unsheltered families staying in vehicles and tents.”

As for young homeless adults and unaccompanied minors, the report notes that they “intentionally avoid canvassing teams,” making for inaccurate findings.

But there’s another reason fewer homeless families were located this year, and it isn’t a positive one.

In 2015, the last year the count was performed, family-oriented service providers like Women’s Empowerment, Maryhouse and the Mustard Seed School were directed to survey their guests the morning after the PIT survey, to make sure any families and kids who were missed the night before got counted.

That didn’t happen this year, says Women’s Empowerment Executive Director Lisa Culp. “Those families weren’t counted this year,” Culp told SN&R. “I think that’s the biggest discrepancy. … There’s definitely not a drop.”

There isn’t a great reason why. Culp, who sits on Steps Forward’s advisory board, says she asked about it the night before the PIT count, but that it may have simply fallen through the cracks this year. “By the time it went through all the channels, it just didn’t happen,” Culp said.

Other providers provide a more sobering glimpse at the crisis.

Wind Youth Services Executive Director Suzi Dotson says her organization saw 1,173 unduplicated homeless youth last year, 28 percent more than in 2015. And Waking the Village Executive Director Bridget Alexander said her youth-oriented programs had more than 450 young people waiting for an opening as of May.

Meanwhile, a little-known CalFresh program that allows eligible recipients to use their food-assistance benefits at participating restaurants had 13,245 homeless people signed up for it in May, according to a Sacramento County official.

That’s a hell of a lot more people that the PIT survey found.

Likewise, even if the morning-after audit had been conducted this year, Culp says it still wouldn’t have come close to approximating the real number of homeless families. “The key to their safety and the safety of their children is to hide,” she noted.

For moms like Jones, staying under the radar can be key. The friends she and her 4-year-old son crash with often let her do so without their landlords’ permission. Jones says she’s been looking for work for the past two years without luck. “There’s not enough help for homeless families,” she said.

Jones said she used to have a “fantastic frigging navigator” through Steps Forward, someone who is supposed to help her access services that lead to housing. But he stopped returning her calls last year. She doesn’t know why. Two months ago, Jones called Steps Forward to ask for help once again.

“No one called me back,” she said.

Jones wants to complete her education and become an emergency medical technician. For now, she’s just trying to stay above water—literally. “I was gifted a tent recently,” Jones said. “There’s no other place but the river and I don’t know how to swim.”