How Accurate is Our Homeless Count?

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Wood Street, Oakland, CA
Oakland’s Wood Street curbside community in West Oakland between West Grand Ave and 26th Street is home to many unhoused people, but no one knows exactly how many. Photo by Zack Haber.

Oakland’s population of un­housed residents may be much higher than the July Point- In-Time census that showed a 47% increase over the last count in 2017.

The total of 4,071 of home­less residents made headlines, but unhoused residents, their advocates, and those who’ve studied or participated in the PIT count see its figures as an undercount.

“The PIT count is not de­signed to be a comprehen­sive analysis of the homeless population,” said Margaretta Lin, executive director of the Dellums institute and a former Oakland Deputy City Admin­istrator. “But because it’s the only good number we have on homelessness, that number sticks in the public’s imagina­tion.”

The PIT count has been performed every two years in Oakland since The Depart­ment of Housing and Urban Development mandated the count for all communities that receive federal funding for homelessness.

The vast majority of PIT totals come from volunteers individually counting home­less people during about three hours on one day. In Oakland, that day is January 30th, early in the morning in the middle of winter, a time when unhoused people who can find temporary shelter would be most likely to.

Alastair Boone, who partici­pated in 2019’s PIT count and wrote about the experience in an article for CityLab, reported that about 600 volunteers and 150 guides participated in the count. She worked with one other volunteer and one guide to search through a residential area in East Oakland but she didn’t find a single homeless person.

While she attributes her in­ability to find homeless people in the area to the fact that she was in a relatively wealthy neighborhood, she also thinks she missed people.

“We…probably missed people who were hidden from view,” said Boone, “they were in alcoves or cars, or in the homes and apartments of friends and relatives, sleeping on couches and floors.”

The discrepancy between the total PIT count increases of unsheltered and temporar­ily sheltered residents also suggests that temporarily shel­tered residents are especially undercounted. While PIT’s count of unsheltered home­less residents increased 59% from 3,210 to 4,071 between the 2017 and 2019 counts, its counts of sheltered home­less residents in those years remained almost exactly the same. In 2017 PIT’s total tem­porarily sheltered homeless count was 859; in 2019 it was 861.

According to a 2017 report by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), since PIT counts use the amount of filled beds in homeless shelters to measure its count of sheltered home­less residents, they can’t do an accurate measure in areas like Oakland where beds at shelters are generally filled to capacity.

“The count of sheltered homeless individuals indicates a city’s supply of shelter beds rather than the demand for shel­ter or housing” the NLCHP re­port reads.

Since the PIT count general­ly uses the same methodology, Margaretta Lin thinks it can be effective to measure trends and fluctuations in homeless popu­lation but she also feels more studies and alternate methods of counting should be used to get a more accurate count.

She pointed out that a 2014-2015 study conducted by Al­ameda County’s Healthcare for the Homeless (ACHCH) found that 18,000 people were home­less while the 2015 PIT sum­mary counted just 4,040.

ACHCH’s count was deter­mined by measuring how many homeless people used county services instead of counting homeless people on one day.

James Vann of the Home­less Advocacy Working Group (HAWG) says the organiza­tion estimates Oakland’s cur­rent homeless population at between 9,000 and 11,000. HAWG has identified 92 en­campments, which they de­fine as any group of four or more people living together unhoused, and does regular counts at them.

“Our count is a real increase from two years ago,” Vann said, “when we counted between 40 and 45 encampments.”

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