Bramson: What really counts when it comes to homelessness?
Move-in day for over 150 new residents at First Community Housing's Second Street Studios in San Jose

Back in 2005, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that communities across the country needed to start regularly counting the number of people on the streets and in shelters. The government argued that a standardized process to enumerate and survey those without a permanent home would help us all measure the severity of the need, understand specific trends over time, and develop evidence-based solutions grounded in data to end homelessness.

The Feds also mandated that the counts would take place on the coldest days of the year, with community volunteers paired with homeless guides combing census tracts in the early morning chill. This decision superficially assured some uniformity across the nation, putting people out of their element and in unfamiliar surroundings searching for their neighbors in the dark under overpasses, by creek beds and down alleyways.

Not a bad PR opportunity to raise public awareness either, some officials must have most certainly surmised.

Fast forward a decade later and while there is no shortage of criticism for this approach, there has also been little change. Segments of the population, like families who are doubled or tripled up or couch surfing youth, are under-counted or missed completely. Counting methodologies are readjusted frequently, meaning that trend data is inconsistent and not at all that valuable for analysis. And the very act of finding a largely unsheltered population that’s trying very hard to stay out of view just does not lend itself well to a group of mainly volunteers who all too often don’t really know where to look.

Still, we count because we are told to count, because it is required to receive federal funding and because we don’t really have another good option.

And every two years, as a reward for our fidelity, we’re treated to a sensationalized news cycle that tells us what we already know: things are very, very bad out there. Going by the 2019 statistics, across California this year we are seeing seismic shifts, with double digit percentage increases in major cities from San Diego to Sacramento. Right here at home, the count found a 31% increase countywide: 9,706 homeless people, primarily unsheltered, with chronically homeless adults, youth and young adults as some of the largest sub-populations.

While these new numbers are disheartening, it’s not at all a surprise.

Despite the progress we’ve made, including housing nearly 7,000 people in the last four years, we just can’t keep up with the pace of people falling into homelessness. Month after month, for every one person housed another three lose their homes, and the spigot keeps gushing water into the drain.

What’s even more frustrating is that we know homelessness is solvable and we know what works. But in the face of such an enormous challenge, it’s critical to make sure we’re not just getting people into housing, but we’re preventing them from ever being on the streets in the first place.

Firstly, we need to take the homelessness prevention system efforts to scale. In year two of the programming, the system has served 693 households, preventing homelessness 97% of the time. Unfortunately, last year alone almost 4,700 people came searching for assistance. With more private and government funding coming in this year, the program will grow to serve 900 households, but will still be meeting only around 20% of the potential need. Continuing to press local, state and federal funding will be critical in the coming years to make sure everyone has a place to turn to in times of crisis.

Secondly, we need to look at our frayed safety net and see what needs mending. I can tell you without question that the foster care, criminal justice and hospital systems discharged clients this year who had no permanent place to go. What I can’t tell you is how many people, from where, and if they received any services prior to exit. This can’t continue if we want to get a true hold of the problem, so we need to closely study the safety net in its entirety, find the pain points and then invest deeply to make sure that those systems are able to connect with and access housing for people before they leave care.

Finally, more housing for the poorest people must be built. A recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that we have an existing deficit of over 38,000 units for people making less than 30% of the area median income in Silicon Valley. That means only three out of every 10 extremely low income families will be able to find homes with rents they can actually afford. Without those places to live, folks are forced to make tough decisions each month, and more often than not find themselves on the street without help.

We should applaud the progress of the county in creating more than 1,900 new and renovated apartments with the 2016 Affordable Housing Bond, commend the city for allocating 45% of all its housing funds for extremely low income units over the next five years, and celebrate the recent opening of 134 permanent supportive housing homes at Second Street Studios as great strides forward. But really all of this should just be viewed as the very beginning and we need to push for more, doubling down on the interventions and programs that really are making a difference.

So headlines aside, we all know what counts in this crisis: not stopping until everyone has a home. That’s something we can all focus on every day.

San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Impact Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at rbramson@sbcglobal.net or follow @rbramson on Twitter.

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