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Official calls for ‘more humane’ homeless count strategy

REGION — The local nonprofit that administered a local census of the homeless — as part of a nationwide effort — has expressed concerns about the method the homeless were counted, calling it “troublesome.”

The 2019 WeAllCount effort was conducted countywide between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. Jan. 25 as part of the federally mandated Point-In-Time Count of the homeless, which helps federal officials allocate dollars to counties to fight homelessness. The San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless oversees the effort regionally.

Locally, the Encinitas-based nonprofit Community Resource Center oversees the county for an area that includes Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach and portions of Rancho Santa Fe and Carmel Valley.

A ranking official with Community Resource Center said that this year, volunteers were required to reach out to homeless people and interview and have them complete a questionnaire to find more information about the cause of their homelessness. This was a departure from previous counts, where volunteers would count the homeless without disturbing them, or mark encampments on maps, and use formulas to estimate the number of people living in those encampments. 

Rebecca Palmer, the chief program officer at the center, said that this meant that volunteers — who canvassed in groups of three — were in some cases waking homeless people up on the street and in their encampments before sunrise to fill out a survey, in exchange for a pair of socks and a gift card. 

“It was a little disruptive and somewhat troublesome of a methodology,” Palmer said. “You would approach someone sleeping outside, and ask them to speak with you, which is a little intrusive.”

Palmer suggested other methods of counting, such as finding a member of encampments in advance of the count to lead volunteers down to sensitive areas, and bringing food or coffee to make it less intrusive. Or, Palmer said, host a centralized breakfast and invite homeless to come and conduct the count there. 

“We would like to be part of a different strategy next year,” Palmer said. “So that it is a more respectful and dignified approach to what can be a fear-based thing.”

Kat Durant, an operations coordinator with the regional task force, said that the methodology was mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the nationwide count. 

Regionally, San Diego County has gone above and beyond many of the federal requirements, such as conducting tests annually rather than the biennial federal requirement. But the region’s counting methods were out of step with the national requirements, so this year they were asked to align them, Durant said. 

“We needed to basically step our game up,” Durant said. “They (HUD officials) recognized we have this great count that happens every year, we have this amazing volunteer base that is willing to get up at 4 a.m., 1,500 people countywide, but the next step was to engage the homeless, and that change was mandated by HUD.”

Durant said that Community Resource Center was not the only agency countywide to express concern about the new approach, but that no agencies had expressed concerns following the count.

Volunteers were paired with an experienced outreach worker who was trained to do counts, and volunteers weren’t forced to knock on cars or tents unless they were comfortable, otherwise the outreach worker would do it, Durant said. 

When asked about the criticism that the counting methodology was intrusive, Durant said that the homeless population in general “is a population that does get awakened in the middle of the night.”

“It is an important day and it’s important we reach these people where they are so we can get the proper policies and services in place,” Durant said. “In order to do that, we need to know more about them, and the best way to do that is to talk to them in the place where they are experiencing the homelessness.”

Durant said that some of Palmer’s suggestions had been used in the past, and that some homeless people are left out of counts because they might not make it to the central location.

“We did that in the past, come and be counted, and I think that works for people who are more functional and can answer those questions and be present,” Durant said. “That is a lot to ask for some of the population, so we need to go where they are.”

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