Every other year, local governments desiring some of the roughly $2.7 billion that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) spends annually on homeless services must complete a task: Tell HUD how many homeless people there are to service.
The method used is inexact at best. To count the unhoused and unsheltered population—the shelters are usually full to bursting with waitlists hundreds or a thousand names long—county health or human services agencies, or nonprofits to which the task is contracted out, often resort to the simplest method of enumeration known, the one you learn in kindergarten: They (or citizen volunteers, mostly) go out with flashlights, clipboards and pencils, and literally count heads, or curled-up street sleepers, or RVs, or tents.
How many people an office manager or sales rep guesses are sleeping in an RV or a tent they’re peering at in the semi-dark becomes data. Whether the volunteer presumes two or four is up to them—I can tell you this, for I have done it twice, in 2009 and 2017, and I don’t believe my guessing skills improved much—and thus wholly arbitrary, a snap decision that can result in a variance of 100 percent. Or more. Is that just some old car, or an old car someone lives in? Is that RV the glamping vehicle for an Instagram influencer or some eccentric Burner type, or does it house the family of four who couldn’t afford the landlord’s latest offer? You don’t know and you can’t know. Yet, this is the data the federal government uses, and we arrive at neat numbers like, “500,000 homeless people in America, 8,011 homeless people in San Francisco.”
As CityLab wrote, among many homeless experts, the consensus is that the result you get when untrained volunteers make guesses in the dark is inexact and flawed and probably an under-exaggeration. Whenever you ask “how many homeless people are there,” you can take the official number and add to it by maybe a third. (Compounding the underestimation of the problem is the federal government’s restrictive definition of homeless; if you are couch-surfing on a relative’s or a friend’s couch or staying in a motel without a permanent address, you are not homeless.)
This is all interesting but mostly trivial, context for absorbing the results of the 2019 homeless count in the San Francisco Bay Area, America’s favorite microcosm and dystopian parable.
Anyone with eyes who has spent more than five minutes in San Francisco or Oakland was already painfully aware that the region’s homeless problem has devolved from international embarrassment to ungodly humanitarian crisis. But this is not a Bay Area thing—that is, it is a Bay Area thing, but it is also a Los Angeles thing, and an Orange County thing, and—less you fall into the easy and false snare of “coastal liberals”—a Bakersfield thing.
Tents on streets, poor people living in RVs, human misery filling in the landscape of fantastic wealth and human progress: This is California’s thing.
Unofficial 2019 Homeless counts for CA so far:
Alameda County +43%
San Jose +42%
Santa Clara County +31%
Orange County +43%
San Bernardino County +23%
Riverside County +22%
Ventura County +28%
Kern County +64%
Humboldt County +125%
Marin County -7%
San Diego County -6%
— Sam Dodge (@samueldodge) May 17, 2019