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.”