Silicon Valley homeless tally guaranteed to be an undercount
Formerly unhoused resident Geneva Strickland walks down the trail near Coyote Creek to find homeless camps in the early morning hours of Feb. 23. Strickland took part in Santa Clara County's point in time homeless count. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

As hundreds of volunteers went out before dawn to tally the number of people living on Silicon Valley streets this week, advocates say many are being left out of the count.

The point-in-time homeless census count is part of a requirement for Santa Clara County to receive federal funding. The two-day event in Silicon Valley involves volunteers, lawmakers and advocates searching streets, tents and underpasses to physically count unhoused residents.

News reports and elected officials often point to the count to describe the growing homelessness crisis in Silicon Valley. But the number only provides a portion of what’s happening on the ground, according to advocates and the survey company conducting the count.

Applied Survey Research (ASR), the company leading the tally, has worked with Santa Clara County since 2007 to conduct these counts. The company also worked with a number of Bay Area counties such as San Francisco, Sonoma and Alameda counties and San Jose to record the unhoused population.

John Connery, a research analyst with ASR, said his company uses the most accurate methodology recommended by the federal government in the efforts. But he acknowledges the census count doesn’t reflect the true extent of the homeless crisis.

“The PIT count is really the bare minimum,” Connery told San José Spotlight, adding there’s no additional method to address the undercount.

Because the count relies solely on volunteers’ observations, it’s impossible to have an accurate tally of how many people are actually experiencing homelessness across Santa Clara County, advocates said.

If volunteers come across a mobile home and can’t immediately determine the number of people occupying the space, they log it as one person. In reality, advocates said it’s often two to three people living in the same RV—making the tally a guaranteed undercount.

“The method really seems outdated,” said Ray Bramson, chief operating officer of Destination: Home and San José Spotlight columnist. “It forces (the) community to spend a lot of time and energy doing something that is not good. It doesn’t provide really reliable data or meaningful statistics.”

That means the record high number of 9,706 homeless people recorded in 2019 in Silicon Valley was likely much higher—and the number to come back later this year is bound to be an undercount than the reality on the streets.

“It’s a vast undercount,” Richard Scott, a retired social worker and homeless advocate, told San José Spotlight. “It shows a general picture, but we are just making estimation.”

‘Better than nothing’

For Robert Aguirre, a formerly unhoused person who has helped the county conduct point in time counts over the last decade, said the count is still worth doing.

“The count is extremely inefficient, and yes, it has many flaws,” Aguirre told San José Spotlight. “But it’s better than nothing. It continues to raise awareness about the issue.”

The count allows volunteers who are homeowners and renters to come face to face with the squalor many of the unhoused face in one of the wealthiest regions in the world, Aguirre said. It also helps unhoused people who participate in the efforts understand the challenges other homeless people are experiencing.

“They become aware of not just themselves, but other people that are either having similar type of concerns or issues or barriers,” Aguirre said. “They have a real empathy now for others.”

The data, while incomplete, also reveals emerging trends and provides a general understanding of the change in demographics among the homeless population over the years, Connery added.

“It does have an impact on the county’s decision on homelessness,” he said.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Destination: Home CEO Jennifer Loving is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.

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