Back in 2014, as Jeeni Criscenzo took part in the yearly effort to count the region’s homeless residents, she observed a homeless woman with a baby in her arms. When she tried to include the infant in her tally, she discovered there wasn’t any space where a baby could be registered.
“I complained about it, and the following year there was a space in the survey to count single women with babies sleeping on the streets,” Criscenzo said.
Even with the update, homeless advocates still believe certain groups of people are easier to count than others.
Once a year, more than a thousand volunteers survey homeless people as far as the eye can see – on the streets, in encampments, under bridges. It’s called the point-in-time count because it captures just a glimpse of the homeless situation on a single day. The most recent survey happened in Jan. 29, the numbers collected from it will be released this month. While efforts like the point-in-time countaren’t exact – they represent a snapshot of the region’s homeless population– they are used by state and federal governments to dole out funding for services that cater to the homeless.
A number of factors – from the way the count is executed to who qualifies as homeless – make it especially hard to count homeless youth and women, which means they’re often underrepresented in official totals.
Who Counts as Homeless?
Part of the reason it’s difficult to calculate the number of homeless residents in a given area is because it’s difficult to determine who even counts as homeless.
On that point, even the federal government seems to disagree with itself.
The federal Department of Education considers “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” as homeless. That would include people who sleep in motels, stay on friends’ couches or double up with relatives.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that mandates the point-in-time count and doles out funding tied to its results, has different categories but essentially counts as homeless those who sleep on the streets, in their cars or seek out refuge at shelters. The count uses HUD’s definition.
It would be extremely difficult to count people who sleep in motels, couch-surf or live in overcrowded spaces during the point-in-time count, said Dolores Diaz, the executive director of theRegional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego, the nonprofit that organizes the count.
“We are sure that people are missed during the count because they don’t make the HUD definition,” she said.
Diaz said she thinks “changing that definition could dramatically impact the numbers that report for homelessness across the nation.”
Criscenzo, the woman who had trouble tallying an infant in the point-in-time count, is the founder of Amikas, a nonprofit that helps homeless women.
Criscenzo said she became interested in having a more accurate picture of homelessness when she realized the number of calls Amikas received from homeless women surpassed what the point-in-time count depicted.
“Amikas was getting a dozen phone calls a week from women who needed help and they were so desperate because no one else was offering it,” Criscenzo said. “When we tried to get funding so that we could help these women, we realized that they weren’t recognized as homeless.”
She put together an analysis that drives home the number of homeless San Diegans who might be left out of official counts. It uses data collected by the San Diego Unified School District that shows 18,528 students said they were staying with relatives or in motels instead of in a permanent residence of their own.
Criscenzo said women tend to avoid places where homeless people congregate.
“Women are so vulnerable on the street. They are vulnerable in shelters too,” Criscenzo said. She said women more often seek shelter by staying with friends or relatives.
In a 2006 report, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless described the difficulty of recognizing homeless women, even the ones who fit the narrow HUD definition: “Street homeless women are not always easy to recognize as homeless because women tend to take care of their appearance better than men.”
Some homeless people couch-surf or rent motel rooms part of the time, and sleep on the streets as a last resort. So it’s possible that even those folks, who’d qualify as homeless under the HUD definition, wouldn’t be included in the count if they didn’t happen to be on the street the night of the survey.