Drones, helicopters, thermal imaging expected to boost accuracy in this year’s homeless count
This year, when volunteers comb the region to count and interview San Diego’s homeless population, they’ll have a bit of high-tech help.
Organizers of the annual Point-in-Time Count will use infrared technology on drones and helicopters to help them locate people living in canyons and other areas were they might be harder to find.
The idea is that those images, and other changes planned for the Jan. 25 event, could provide more useful and accurate results.
The count, conducted by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless as a funding requirement by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is challenging on many levels. It’s done in pre-dawn hours, when people are most likely to be asleep, in an attempt to make them easier to count, but inevitably some people are missed.
Task force CEO Tamera Kohler said several steps are being taken this year in an effort to count more people and gather more demographic information.
There was some confusion and a little controversy with last year’s count. While the official report of 8,576 homeless people represented a 6 percent drop from last year, the count did not include at least 300 people who were staying at the San Diego Rescue Mission, which did not file its paperwork in time.
Volunteers also did not count people who live in recreational vehicles last year, although some were counted in past years.
The January count will include RVs as well as many people who have been missed in the past because they live in canyons and other places out of sight of volunteers.
Taking a cue from Las Vegas, San Diego will use overhead thermal imaging devices that can locate people in the dark by detecting their heat.
The San Diego Police Department will fly a helicopter equipped with thermal imaging equipment over central areas of the city and the Sheriff’s Department will fly a helicopter with the devices over Lakeside.
The Chula Vista Police Department also will use thermography to find people, but will fly a drone instead of a helicopter.
Sheriff’s Lt. Fran Passalacqua said the flights over Lakeside could find homeless people who have gone uncounted in past years.
“We thought this was a great opportunity,” she said.
Passalacqua said the largest number of homeless people in Lakeside are along the San Diego River near state Route 67 near Mapleview Street and at the end of Vine Street. A helicopter is scheduled to fly overhead before sunrise Jan. 25 to locate people in the area.
The helicopter crew then will phone the volunteers doing the count to direct them to where people were detected, she said. For safety reasons, crews will wait until sunrise before walking into the brush to interview people in encampments.
Passalacqua said a more accurate count could mean more money for homeless services in East County.
“The east region is severely lacking in resources for those who are homeless,” she said. “If we don’t get an accurate count, how can we get resources? We do not have any shelters. We don’t have a Father Joe’s or Alpha Project.”
San Diego County has the fourth largest homeless population in the nation but often is ranked 20th in funding from HUD.
Last year’s countywide count found about 5,000 homeless people outdoors or in vehicles and about 3,600 in shelters.
So far more than 700 people have volunteered to participate in this year’s count by registering at rtfh.volunteerhub.com. Volunteers also must participate in a one-hour online training session.
HUD has pushed the task force to collect more information from homeless people, and 11 contracted workers from the federal agency have been in San Diego since Tuesday to help prepare for the count.
The most significant change in this year’s count will be an increased effort to gather demographic information from more homeless people through a 21-question survey. People will be asked about their race, health, the reasons why they became homeless and for how long, whether they are a veteran, have a substance abuse problem and other questions.
THE COUNT IS DONE IN PRE-DAWN HOURS, WHEN PEOPLE ARE MOST LIKELY TO BE ASLEEP, IN AN ATTEMPT TO MAKE THEM EASIER TO COUNT, BUT INEVITABLY SOME PEOPLE ARE MISSED.