Homeless census out of step with most of Bay Area
Divergence from other counts could hinder region's efforts to assess crisis
Dawn had not yet risen as San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan tromped through the frost-covered grass, peering under bridges and down embankments, searching for tents where unhoused people might live.
“Sorry to disturb you,” the mayor called out as one man emerged from his tent, perplexed to see people at the encampment so early in the morning.
Mahan was helping with a long-standing biennial ritual — the pointin-time homeless count, which seeks to tally everyone living in tents, cars, on the street or in other places not meant for habitation. It's an important, federally mandated count that helps determine state and federal funding and programs to serve homeless residents. Traditionally, counties throughout the Bay Area — and across the country — take part at the same time.
But surprisingly, Santa Clara County counted on its own, and most of the rest of the Bay Area opted out — raising questions about the ability to capture an accurate picture of the area's homelessness crisis.
“It's unfortunate,” said Jennifer Friedenbach executive director of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness.
Typically the count is conducted every two years, but things went wonky during the pandemic. Worried about spreading the COVID-19 virus, Bay Area counties postponed the 2021 count until 2022.
Not wanting to count two years in a row, San Francisco, Alameda and San Mateo counties have opted to conduct the next census in 2024 — and then in 2026.
Alameda County decided to wait a year “due to the extensive resources and staffing needed to conduct the count,” Katie Haverly, executive director of Everyonehome, which leads the count, said in an email.
Conversely, Santa Clara County decided to do the count this year and in 2025 — throwing it out of sync with most of the rest of the Bay Area. The count always has been done in odd-numbered years, and the county saw “significant value” in doing it this year, said Kathryn Kaminski, deputy director of the county's Office of Supportive Housing.
Contra Costa County, another outlier that counts every year instead of every other year, also conducted a 2023 count.
The problem with Santa Clara County falling out of step with the rest of the Bay Area is that homelessness is a regional issue, Friedenbach said.
“The big negative on that is that you can't compare how counties are doing,” she said. “The reason that it's important to be able to compare in a regional area is because there's a variety of different policies at play and it's a good tool to see if investments are working.”
For example, homelessness increased in each of the five Bay Area counties last year — except in San Francisco, where it dropped 4%. Friedenbach
credits that decrease to the release of homelessness funds from the city's Proposition C tax measure, leading to a large expansion of shelter and housing.
And unhoused residents often move between the Bay Area counties, she said. Low-income people who get priced out of San Francisco may end up homeless in the East Bay
— a trend that isn't taken into account when counties conduct the count in a silo.
The fact that the Bay Area counties seemingly didn't talk to each other before deciding on their homeless count schedule is “very indicative of the need for much more coordination,” said Jennifer Wolch, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in issues surrounding homelessness. The Bay Area could do a better job of tackling its crisis if it had a regional strategy that allowed jurisdictions to pool their resources, she said.
The biennial homeless count, while not perfect, has long been cited as a measure of trends within the Bay Area. The census relies on volunteers counting visible tents while it's still dark and people are sleeping and not moving around. But experts say it is likely an undercount because counters may miss hard-to-spot encampments or underestimate the number of people living in a tent.
Santa Clara County tallied more than 10,000 unhoused people last year — the most of any of the five Bay Area counties and a 3% increase from 2019. The results of Santa Clara County's 2023 count likely won't be available for several months.
Kaminski, with the Office of Supportive Housing, maintained that Santa Clara County's count will continue to be useful even though it's now out of sync with most of the Bay Area.
“While there is no perfect way to measure the exact number of people experiencing homelessness in any community, the (point-in-time) count provides a consistent method for us to understand trends in Santa Clara County over time,” she said in an email. “This comparison of trends does not require each community to conduct the (point-in-time) count at the same time.”