County Needs Help Counting the Homeless, and Here’s Why It Matters

By Brittany Hosea-Small

As housing costs climb higher and higher without incomes anywhere near keeping pace for many, so too has the number of homeless people been on the rise.

That number, however, can be hard to pinpoint. That is why Contra Costa County is asking for help with its annual count.

Over the course of one week, the Point-in-Time survey tries to determine how many people are living on the streets or in unsuitable housing by asking people throughout the county about their living situations. The goal is to estimate how many people in the city were homeless on a given night.

The most recent survey found that, for instance, the number of seniors without a place to live increased 39 percent within a year’s time. Seniors can be particularly vulnerable to losing their homes because fixed incomes don’t allow them to keep up with rent increases.

The time for the next survey is fast approaching, set to take place over the week of Jan. 28. The work is done by volunteers, and the county needs more people to sign up.

Getting an accurate count, while challenging, is important because it’s required by the federal government and used to determine state and federal funding for programs affecting homeless individuals and families.

Volunteers will ask not only about people’s housing status on the specified night, but also other demographic questions, including how long the person may have been homeless, if they’ve been homeless before, if they have family with them. They will also ask about veteran status or if they’ve been in the foster care or criminal justice systems.

“It’s to make sure that we’re looking at housing as a really important topic as somebody is getting discharged, because a lot of folks exit from these systems right into homelessness,” Jaime Jenett, Contra Costa County Continuum of Care planning and policy manager, said.

In order to get an accurate count, CoC’s are allowed to gather information for up to seven days after their designated Point-In-Time night. This means a week’s worth of data collection from shelters and services, as well as four days of public surveying.

Because of this heavy workload, Contra Costa County’s CoC is looking to line up between 150 to 200 volunteers to assist in administering the surveys during the week of Jan 28.  Volunteers work two- to three-hour long shifts outside, where they will be stationed in pairs at 50 locations throughout the county. During their shifts, volunteers will ask people walking by about their current housing status.

Each of the volunteers will go through a two-hour long training session the week before going out to survey. CoC will hold six different training sessions throughout the county to reach all volunteers.

“This is really an opportunity for people who are concerned about homelessness and want to find a way to directly get involved.” Jenett said. “It’s an opportunity to speak to people who are experiencing homelessness.”

As of mid-December, Jenett said that there were 50 volunteers signed up to help survey Contra Costa County residents, but the CoC needs close to 200.

While Jenett can’t say for certain what this year’s homeless numbers will look like, if the 2017-18 numbers are any indicator, homelessness will continue to rise.

In accordance with federal standards, only people staying in homeless shelters or specifically staying in places deemed unfit for human habitation are included in the count. Those that are staying on couches or in apartments housing 10 or more people are not included in the required Point-In-Time homeless count.

According to Jenett, it’s widely agreed that the data from the annual survey isn’t entirely representative of the full housing picture. With numbers only encompassing one night of the year and the method of data collection varying from community members administering public surveys, boots-on-the-ground estimates leave room for statistical error.

Jenett considers it a modified comparison of sorts. “They’re kind of rotten apples, but you can compare apples to apples because every community has the same challenge,” she said.

But despite its flaws, the Point-In-Time homeless count numbers have made a difference at the state level. According to Jenett, Contra Costa County is expected to receive $7.2 million from the Homeless Emergency Aid Program, a state program that distributes funding to all California counties. Its funding distribution to counties is based off the federal 2017 Point-In-Time numbers.

It’s because of this local impact that Jenett continues to encourage community members to volunteer for the annual count.

“You may not solve somebody’s homelessness that day, but if you help get them counted, that can go towards helping get resources to our community to serve people,” Jenett said.

Those interested in volunteering should register at or contact the Contra Costa Continuum of Care at or at 925-608-6700.

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