Every two years, volunteers in counties across the U.S. set out to tally the number of unhoused people they can see on a single night in January. Shelter staff fill out surveys to count their residents, too. Counties must participate in this process—called the Point-in-Time (PIT) count—in order to qualify for federal funding for housing and homelessness programs. The data determines how much money a city or county might receive, and influences policy decisions at both the local and national level. The results of the 2022 PIT count were eagerly awaited by local governments and constituents alike: the 2021 count was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, which kept the nation in the dark about to what extent the pandemic has impacted marginalized communities.
While homelessness continues to grow in Alameda County, the rate of growth has slowed compared to previous years. This is believed to be the result of COVID-19 emergency funding, which allowed cities to acquire hotels and other properties to erect emergency housing.
Below is a breakdown of the the 2022 results, as well as the answers to some frequently asked questions.
• Alameda County’s overall homeless population grew by 22 percent since 2019, to 9,747.
• There were more people living in cars and shelters: this jump was driven by a 39 percent uptick in the number of people living in cars or RVs and a 53 percent increase in the number of people in shelters. This could be a sign of a new wave of homeless residents in the city, who were priced out of their housing and moved into shelters or their vehicles.
• Overall, most unhoused people in Alameda County live outside. The report tallied 7,135 unsheltered people and 2,612 sheltered people—roughly the same proportions as three years ago when the last count was done.
• Regionally, homelessness disproportionately impacts Black people. More detailed racial demographics will be released later this summer.
• Oakland’s homeless population has grown by about 1,000 people since the start of the pandemic, putting the total number of residents living without permanent housing at 5,055. However, the growth rate in the city’s homeless population has slowed, from 47 percent between 2017-2019, to 24 percent from 2019-2022.
• Hundreds more people are living in cars (31 percent of the unsheltered population) and RVs (27 percent).
• Fewer people are living in tents than in pervious years: Volunteers counted 1,063 people living in tents (32 percent of the unsheltered population), down from 1,320 in 2019.
• In Oakland the homelessness crisis overwhelmingly affects Black residents. According to the data released in May, 60 percent of shelter residents are Black, compared to 23 percent of the general population.
• Berkeley’s homeless population went down 5 percent to 1,057 individuals, the first decline the city has reported in years. This decrease amounts to 51 fewer people than were counted in 2019.
• In line with the county, more people are living in tents and vehicles than in previous years. The number of people living in tents rose by 70 percent, and number living in vehicles rose 26 percent. The number living in RVs dropped 57 percent, however, and the number living on the street dropped 53 percent.
• In Berkeley, the number of people living in shelters dropped by 14 percent.
• There are more unsheltered people in Berkeley (803) than those who live in shelters (254).
Pandemic funding and new shelter beds
While COVID-19 caused traditional group shelters to close or operate at lower capacities, sate and federal COVID-19 aid allowed cities in Alameda County to add a total of 900 shelter beds during the pandemic. This funding has been widely credited with staving off the severe uptick in homelessness that many feared the pandemic would cause. However, much of this funding is set to expire in the coming year. City and county officials have held up the results of the 2022 PIT count to underscore the importance of making sure that this funding is continued.
How do they know how many people are living in a single tent, encampment, or vehicle?
Similar to many counties across the U.S., the Alameda County PIT count relies on a multiplier to determine how many people live in a single tent, encampment, or vehicle. In the weeks before the count, service providers speak to people living in tents, RVs, cars, and vans in different regions around the county, and tally how many people lived in each dwelling type. That pre-survey data is combined to create a county-wide multiplier.
During the observed count, volunteers are instructed not to disrupt unsheltered people. Instead, if they cannot see the number of residents inside a tent or vehicle, they simply make note of having seen a certain type of dwelling. The multiplier is later used to estimate the total number of unsheltered people in the county, as well as where people are living.
Why do they conduct the count in January when it is so cold outside?
According to Everyone Home, the agency responsible for organizing the PIT count in Alameda County, HUD requires the count to take place during the last ten days of January because the cold weather makes it more likely for unhoused people to engage with the shelter system. This is supposed to help counties capture a more accurate picture, based on the premise that it is easier to gather data when people are engaging with service providers.
Additionally, “if it’s cold outside, those that are living on the streets have nowhere else to go. You’re really seeing in that count the population that is literally homeless,” said Katie Haverly Director of Research and Data Analytics at EveryOne Home. Haverly also said that the cold weather made it easier to see when people were living inside vehicles—the steam inside the windows providing stark evidence that someone lived within.
New this year
During this year-long delay, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—the government agency that oversees the count—implemented one key change in the methodology counties must use during the count. They allowed service providers in school districts and elsewhere to contact unhoused families and ask them where they slept the night of the count, rather than just relying on families observed in the observed count, or those captured in the survey data from the shelter system. This let localities capture a more detailed picture of family homelessness.
As a social distancing measure, the 2022 count utilized fewer volunteers than in previous years. In Alameda County, a new digital system was used to collect the tally data from the observed count, which replaced the pen and paper method used in previous years.
Isn’t PIT widely considered to be an undercount?
Yes. The point-in-time count is widely considered to undercount the number of unhoused people in U.S. cities. HUD does not consider those who are couch surfing, or living in someone else’s home (also known as “doubled up”), to be homeless. This means that a significant number of people are excluded from being counted altogether.
Additionally, it is impossible to see every unsheltered person during the observed count, and certain methodologies—such as the tent/vehicle multiplier—mean that the final numbers may or may not capture the realities of life on the street. Racial information is also extrapolated form the survey data. Information about race and gender is not collected in the observed count, Everyone Home says, because it is impossible to know somebody’s race or gender from simple observation. This data is collected in the more thorough data collected by service providers, and used to estimate the broad picture of who is homeless in our county.
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.