Roberts: No homeless count: Are we counting them out?
Volunteers survey an area around the intersection of Monterey Road and Capitol Expressway during the biennial homeless point-in-time count on Jan. 29, 2019. File photo.

I sit on two regional Continuum of Care (CoC) boards in California — Santa Clara County and San Diego County — and in both bodies I voted to not count people who are homeless this year.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created the Continuum of Care Program in order to funnel their resources through a coordinated regional body with an organized plan to address the region’s homelessness.

Part of the commitment to receiving funds is to perform a regular — most CoCs do it annually, although Santa Clara County performs their count every two years — Point-in-Time (PIT) count of people who are homeless in the region. The last Santa Clara County PIT count was in January 2019.

With COVID-19 continuing to surge throughout the state, HUD is giving CoCs the permission to not perform their PIT count this year in order to prevent the spread of the virus among people who are homeless and volunteers who do the counting. In some counties, volunteer participation is significant. Los Angeles County mobilizes 8,000 community volunteers as counters, San Diego County has 1,800 volunteers, and Santa Clara County has around 300 volunteers.

To protect the lives of people who are homeless and the hundreds of community members who help them, I voted to stop the count. An easy vote via email.

Or was it?

I think of Sally, an older woman of Asian descent, who pushes her cart of life’s treasures around downtown mumbling to herself. When one of our PATH street outreach case managers talked with her, she stuck to our worker as if she had been lost in the desert with no human interaction for years. The craving of a human voice, of caring words, of acknowledgement was all she wanted.

I hear you. I see you. You are somebody.

For some people living on the streets, the only positive human conversations occur during PIT count days. Otherwise, they hear screaming from neighbors, “Go away!”

Are we counting Sally out?

The numbers of sick, perished, unemployed, disenfranchised people since last year — sadly due to this year’s health pandemic, racial equity crisis, and economic disaster — has grown significantly. The fear is that these people will end up like Sally, pushing their only life’s possessions on unforgiving streets. Anecdotes from workers in shelters and homeless programs tell sad stories of increasing numbers of people losing homes, at the very least desperately in need of food.

But no homeless count means anecdotes can’t be proven, can’t be considered real data to be given to politicians who decide how much resources should be given to regions to address homelessness.

Are we sweeping 2020’s homelessness crisis under the rug?

America has more than half of a million people who are homeless, a third of them live in tents, cars, or boxes. That is a lot of hurting people not to count.

With the surge of the virus, and the devastating numbers of people dying because of it, safety certainly should be a primary factor in deciding whether we count or not. But the loss of data, and more importantly, the loss of interaction with people living on the streets, is a significant overall loss.

If we don’t count Sally this year, I wonder if by next year she will be lost in the crowds of homelessness, hidden under a bridge or along a hidden riverbed, forever?

Some people believe these annual counts are useless, anyway. Is it really accurate to assess a region’s homelessness crisis by counting how many people who are homeless during a few days in the year? Does counting during just three days, give an accurate assessment of a crisis that occurs 365 days per year?

Perhaps if we cannot count this year, given the threat of sickness and death, we can at least take this time to assess these annual counts, these annual human interactions with people who are desperately in need of a home. Like corporations rethinking how to office their workers, perhaps we need to rethink how we count our neighbors living on the streets.

So we don’t count them out.

San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. He also is a board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home.

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