City advisers, community members highlight discrepancies in homeless population count

Vanessa Lim/Staff

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Somewhere in Berkeley, a mother and daughter are sharing one room with an air mattress. Somewhere else, a single mother lives in a vehicle where she used to live with her son before he was taken away because she was unable to find housing.

Neither are counted in Alameda County’s homeless point-in-time count, or PIT. Both families typify the city of Berkeley’s rise in homelessness.

This year’s PIT count reported 19 sheltered families consisting of 51 individuals in the city of Berkeley. The accuracy of this count, however, has since been questioned by some city advisers.

As required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, communities across the United States conduct a count of the local homeless population every two years. The Alameda County count was carried out Jan. 30 and is organized by the nonprofit organization EveryOne Home.

For the past decade, the city of Berkeley has conducted a separate homeless population count under the city’s jurisdiction. This year’s count was conducted by service providers and volunteers canvassing the city, shelters and locations where homeless people access services.

“Numbers don’t tell the whole story. The # is small, and they (youth) are not typically outdoors during PIT Count,” said James Wogan, Berkeley Unified School District’s manager of student services, in a text message.

Wogan added that numbers can fluctuate at any given time because the youth homeless population is highly mobile and often transient.

The report added that because of the nature of youth homelessness, there is limited data available as a result of inadequate accessibility in shelters, medical care and employment for youth.

Numbers from the Berkeley Unified School District

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines youth homelessness as homeless children and youth who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

There were 82 unaccompanied children and transition-age youth experiencing homelessness in the city of Berkeley at the time of the PIT count.

BUSD, however, has identified 216 students who are legally homeless under McKinney-Vento in the 2019-20 school year. Of the 216 students, seven are unaccompanied minors, according to Wogan. The district has also served six students in families who lived in vehicles this school year and one student who was unsheltered in a tent.

This definition also includes migrant children, youth who are sharing the housing of other individuals, living in public, sheltered or abandoned spaces and motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds.

Stefan Elgstrand, spokesperson for Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, said families with hotel vouchers were likely not counted in the PIT count. He added that the city is aware of several families that use this option.

Discrepancies in the count

In the City Council report for Dec. 3, Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley recommended that 10% of permanent subsidies go to homeless families. She also recommended the allocation of funds for new and existing shelter programs.

Anthony Carrasco, who serves on the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, however, questioned the city manager’s recommendation because the PIT count’s data noted that only 5% of the unhoused population are sheltered families.

Carrasco, however, said Peter Radu, the city’s homeless services coordinator, privately told him that the PIT count data for unhoused and unsheltered families is “inaccurate.”

Radu did not respond to an interview request as of press time.

The PIT count is a one-night count and could miss any individual who, for example, lost their housing the day after the count, according to Radu in an email to Carrasco. Radu added that these estimated averages in the number of people experiencing homelessness over the course of a year are likely two times the nightly count, according to Carrasco.

According to the email, Radu said the multiplier is larger for families given that families are less likely to experience chronic or long spells of homelessness.

At the Nov. 12 Youth Commission meeting, Carrasco discussed Radu’s statements as expressed in a private email.

“Assume, then, that the multiplier is 3,” Radu said in the email. “This implies that over the course of a year, we actually have up to 19 x 3 = 57 homeless families in Berkeley — incidentally, I ran a roster at our only family shelter for the past year, which saw exactly 57 families.”

Carrasco presented at the meeting that the cost of permanently housing every homeless family would be $2 million annually. He added that he had the majority votes to allocate $2 million to end family homelessness.

Carrasco said, however, that Radu deemed this amount “too much” and the population of 19 homeless families as “too small.” As a result, the Homeless Services Panel of Experts funded half a million dollars for family homelessness.

Yesica Prado, former vice chair of the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, added that if the numbers are inaccurate, the city of Berkeley will not be able to provide the proper services to its unhoused populations.

Prado served as a homeless guide for the city’s 2019 PIT count. According to Prado, people living in vehicles would allegedly be counted as a “dwelling” instead of a person.

“In Berkeley, there is a lot of families experiencing homelessness that are not counted,” Prado said in an email. “Families on the street will usually live out of their vehicles, and of course, the Point-In-Time Count does not count any person living inside a vehicle.”

Prado added that some families may not be counted because of the PIT count methodology.

“It’s a problem,” Prado said in an email. “Unless we change the PIT Count methodology, we are going to keep missing people on the data.”

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said the PIT count is the best data the city has, and that it is performed in a “systematic fashion” across the region and county.

Chakko added that the city tries to align services with the demographics of the population. He said part of the city’s work includes services for families including a women’s daytime drop-in center where mental health services, security, access to resources, meals and case management are offered. The city also has a family shelter at Harrison House with 18 units and 40 beds.

Prado said, however, that some of these families rely on other members in their own family units for help. Many of her neighbors on the Eighth Street block of Berkeley are families living in recreational vehicles, who have found living close to University Village to be safe, she added.

“I believe we need to put a stop to family homelessness. The family unit is our future,” Prado said in the email. “Our future is growing up on the streets.”

Prado provided an example of how the general PIT count notes about 1,000 unhoused people in the city. She added, however, that these numbers are allegedly higher and that the city of Berkeley should respond to this crisis “immediately.”

Elgstrand wanted to clarify the numbers.

“The 57 homeless families refers to the amount of people who we expect to experience homelessness over the course of a year, not on any given day,” Elgstrand said in an email. “We believe that 19 homeless families is closer to the number for what to expect on any given day.”

A City Council report from February showed that an estimated 1,000 people may be homeless in Berkeley on any given day. Over the course of a year, however, the city expects to see a total of 2,000 people experiencing homelessness.

Where the city stands in regard to its goal to “end” homelessness by 2028

Berkeley City Councilmember Rigel Robinson said homelessness in the Bay Area is a defining issue. He added that while efforts in Berkeley are making a meaningful difference, they are still not enough.

Family and youth homelessness presents a unique need as one of the greatest predictors of homelessness is if someone grew up experiencing homelessness, according to Robinson.

The city of Berkeley has been increasing its funding for homeless services over the past few years, according to Elgstrand. In 2018, city voters approved Measure P, which provides $6 million to $8 million in funding for homeless and mental health services.

“In the ballot language, it explicitly mentions youth as one of the recipients of this funding,” Elgstrand said in the email.

Elgstrand added that City Council will vote on the recommendations provided by the Homeless Services Panel of Experts at its Dec. 3 meeting. Part of this discussion includes allocating funding under Measure P for permanent housing subsidies for unhoused families with children.

After many community members raised their concerns at the meeting, the city voted to approve $400,500 in permanent housing subsidies for families, according to Carrasco.

The city asked staff to create a 1000 Person Plan in April 2017, according to the City Council report from February. The report said the city must invest in a variety of interventions to mitigate homelessness and move toward a “goal of functional zero.”

The report added that to end homelessness for 1,000 people in Berkeley, the city will need up-front investments in targeted homelessness prevention, light-touch housing problem-solving, rapid rehousing and permanent subsidies.

This will all come at a cost of $16 million to $19.5 million up-front with an additional annual ongoing expense of about $12 million to $15 million. This will not address the entire homeless population in Berkeley, however.

To end homelessness in Berkeley over the next 10 years, staff estimated an annual expense of about $17 million to $21 million in year one, growing annually to a total expense of about $31 million to $43 million by 2028, according to the report.

“This (1000 Person Plan) is really going to hold the city manager accountable because the city manager in reports are saying we shouldn’t fund homeless families,” Carrasco said. “That doesn’t make any sense as to why we can’t if in fact the population is so small.”

Carrasco has been working with Sheila Jordan, former Alameda County superintendent of schools and a current member of the Homeless Services Panel of Experts, and Berkeley City Councilmember Ben Bartlett.

Even though his office has raised money and developed a youth homeless policy measure, there is still more demand than funds can support, according to Bartlett. He added that while the PIT count is a “noble effort,” it is “incomplete” and “not thorough.”

“I do want to push the city manager and advocate for housing homeless families because the family unit is the bedrock of the community and homelessness tears it apart,” Bartlett said. “No child should be in a shelter with grown people. A young mom, a mom and her kids, or a family can bounce back quickly if they have a roof.”

Bartlett added that the committee and school district should be working closely together to share resources and minimize the impact on unhoused families.

Jordan, however, highlighted the remaining discrepancies between the city manager’s report and estimates from the Homeless Services Panel of Experts.

“(The city manager is) using the point-in-time count, which just by common sense that’s not a very good way of making a judgment of how many people are homeless,” Jordan said. “It’s a real distortion of what actually is going on.”

Thao Nguyen is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.