Numbers fluctuate
Homeless counts on the coast through the years have not followed a consistent track.

UPDATED Dec. 17: A biennial count of Coastsiders experiencing homelessness will be delayed after San Mateo County Human Services Agency officials reconsidered conducting the count amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The One Day Homeless Count, normally mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was originally scheduled to be a masked and socially distanced event on Jan. 28. 

County HSA Communications Specialist Bryan Kingston said Thursday the county will delay the count due to the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kingston said the county has not yet set a new date for the count. 

Every two years, hundreds of volunteers head out across the county to collect data about people experiencing homelessness, including whether they are sheltered or unsheltered, what type of shelter they have and where in the county they are living.

After originally planning for the count to go on this year with additional safety protocols in place, County Communications Director Michelle Durand said after the new shelter-in-place order went into effect this week, the county is now asking HUD for a waiver to delay the count.

Other nearby jurisdictions are also working to cancel their counts amid fears about contributing to the spread of COVID-19. Los Angeles County received an exception from HUD last week to cancel its count of unsheltered residents, and the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative is opting to use case management data in lieu of an actual count this year.

Both are worried about having enough volunteers and how to keep the counters and the counted safe. HUD has released guidance on how to safely complete the 2021 count, asking volunteer organizations to provide personal protective equipment to volunteers and minimize close contact as much as possible. It is also allowing organizations to ask for exceptions from completing parts or all of the count or to switch to a safer way of collecting data. HUD is actively discouraging organizations from asking people who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 to participate in the count, including those 65 or older.

Durand said the 2019 count involved more than 300 volunteers countywide. She said the data collected by the count, while imperfect due to its short collection period, is important for helping the county and its partners determine where to funnel resources and how best to help local residents experiencing homelessness.

“For example, one past count showed a spike in families living in RVs which helped our providers consider the particular needs of that group,” Durand said.

Eric DeBode, executive director of Abundant Grace Coastside Worker, said typically, Coastside volunteers head out early in the morning to count residents experiencing homelessness in various zones, looking for people sleeping outside, in their cars or elsewhere. DeBode said the biennial census may be an underestimation of the actual local homeless population, so getting as accurate a count as possible is critical.

The 2019 count, held on Jan. 30, 2019, logged more than 1,500 people experiencing homelessness across the county, 900 of whom were unsheltered. In Half Moon Bay, 54 people were reported as experiencing homelessness, with 60 in the unincorporated Coastside and 116 in Pacifica.

This year’s count comes during a historic economic downturn. While local governments have issued moratoriums on evictions, many people report difficulty paying rent. Thousands of county residents have lost their jobs during the pandemic and such financial climates can lead to homelessness.

For Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero, the count is not just about collecting data. It’s also an opportunity to let residents experiencing homelessness know that local organizations, including hers, are there with food and other services should they need it. She expects the count to look different this year than in the past, but she’s confident the county will work to make sure it is as safe as possible.

“They take safety very seriously,” Guerrero said. “We may be solving one problem but we don't want to be creating another.”

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