Alameda County homeless count to have significant impacts on federal funding

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Zainab Ali/File

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Tuesday morning at 5 a.m., more than 200 homeless guides and 500 volunteers will join a nationwide count and set off to estimate the number of homeless individuals living outside in Alameda County.

The outdoor count which is conducted every two years in Alameda County by organization EveryOne Home informs nonprofits and municipalities about changing the demographics of the homeless community. Cities that receive federal permanent supportive housing funds must conduct this count or provide a separate estimate of the number of homeless individuals in their area.

The count is supplemented by statistics on the number of people who stayed in shelters, transitional housing or a hotel paid by a nonprofit the night before the count in order to most accurately estimate the number of homeless people who are sheltered and unsheltered.

The count helps cities and nonprofits identify the impact of past investments and informs how funding for homeless and community services should be allocated in the future. It includes information on homeless individuals’ gender, estimated age and family status, allowing governments and nonprofits to better understand which groups may need more assistance.

Berkeley is working to get homeless individuals into long-term housing, according to Kristen Lee, manager of Berkeley’s Housing and Community Services Department.

But … our challenge is that we have an economy and a housing market that pushes more people into homelessness,” Lee said.

The city’s transitional and permanent supportive housing, which provide 272 year-round beds, is not large enough to accommodate the city’s homeless population. Moreover, some individuals prefer living outside to living in a shelter, citing concerns about privacy and accessibility.

The last point-in-time count identified 834 individuals homeless in Berkeley in 2015, roughly 20 percent of Alameda County’s 4,040 person homeless population. This figure rose sharply from 2009, when the city counted 680 individuals sheltered and unsheltered in Berkeley, a trend that was not mirrored in Alameda County.

“People who are homeless have very limited income, and finding them housing in the best of markets is difficult, and in Berkeley it’s virtually impossible,” Lee said. “We’re not going to see a dip in the number of homeless people until there are more affordable units.”

The majority of the homeless population are people with extremely low incomes, disabilities and those with very small children who can’t afford childcare while at work and therefore need a subsidy, said Elaine de Coligny, executive director of EveryOne Home.

Not all homeless get counted

Donald Cistrunk, a Berkeley native, has been homeless since June 2016, when his elderly mother passed away. Though he is homeless, volunteers will not count him as he regularly collects enough money selling copies of the Street Spirit newspaper to afford to stay in a hotel room with his wife.

Cistrunk considers himself well-known in the South Berkeley area. Selling the newspaper outside Whole Foods, he regularly can afford the about $80 nightly room. When Cistrunk and his wife do not earn the $80, the hotel has allowed them to stay for the night and repay the deficit at a later time.

Communities receiving funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development can slightly vary who they deem homeless, said Ed Cabrera, a HUD spokesperson.

Individuals who are staying in hospitals because of illness or to escape the cold traditionally are not counted, but San Francisco considers these individuals homeless.

We are still learning how to count youth,” Cabrera said.  “They tend to be more of a hidden population.”

Cabrera added that youth are perhaps more distrustful of outside agencies and less likely to seek assistance, especially from the government.

To estimate the youth population, special teams will continue the count Tuesday evening.

Future funding associated with the homeless count

The cities across Alameda County apply jointly for federal funding from HUD. Individuals who are not counted, such as those who sleep in cars unnoticed or individuals who may be offered the opportunity to set up their tent on private property, reduce the perceived severity of the homelessness problem.

Additionally, consistent underestimates of certain populations may lead the federal government and nonprofits to not properly allocate resources to these groups, such as youth.

But with the new administration under President Donald Trump, there are even greater threats to the homeless community’s access to federal funding.

Last week, Trump signed an executive order that would cut federal funding to municipalities that are designated as sanctuary cities. For Berkeley, this would mean a loss of about $5.4 million of the approximately $17.6 million budget dedicated to homeless services.

“Really it’s incredibly frightening, the prospect of losing this amount of money, but ultimately we’re going to stand up and protect the residents of our city,” said Councilmember Lori Droste. “We’re certainly going to fight for what’s right.”

Cabrera said it is too early to comment on how funding could change with the new executive order.

“We’re going to have to open our pocketbooks,said Councilmember Sophie Hahn. “If the federal government wishes to pose requirements that are antithetical to our values, we will be required to step up.”

Pamela Larson covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @pamreporting.

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