Just how many homeless people are in the Bay Area? Annual census aims to nail down a number

OAKLAND — From the outside, the bronze sedan parked on Sixth Avenue looked abandoned — its tires deflated, a window smashed. But Kerry Abbott noticed condensation fogging the windows — a sign someone might be inside.

“Is anyone home?” she called out. After a few moments, rustling. Then, the door cracked open.

The man who’d been asleep inside is one of the thousands of people without a place to live who will be counted in the biennial “Point-in-Time” homelessness census, taking place this week in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. The count occurs every two years — with most Bay Area counties counting during even-numbered years. Santa Clara County, which conducted its Point-In-Time tally last year, will not count again until 2025.

The tally, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will impact how much funding the federal and state government dedicates toward housing and services in each county.

“This count drives a lot of the funding that serves this population,” said Anna Roth, chief executive of Contra Costa County’s Department of Public Health.

With counties desperate to get their hands on additional resources, getting an accurate count is key. The thousands of volunteers and staff members involved in the census are assigned to drive or walk down city streets, logging each tent, RV, trailer and car they see. In addition, local shelters and temporary housing providers log the number of beds filled the previous night.

Despite volunteers’ efforts to be as thorough as possible, the count is widely seen as underestimating the number of homeless individuals. The most recent counts for the five-county Bay Area show around 31,000 people with no permanent place to live on any given night, a figure that has increased 7% since 2019. About 70% are considered “unsheltered,”

Few places in the nation are grappling with a homelessness crisis as acute as the Bay Area’s. Though billions of public dollars have been spent in recent years to prevent homelessness or get people sheltered, the money isn’t getting people off the streets as quickly as rising housing costs force others out.

Residents are fed up. Three in four registered voters in the region believe homelessness is getting worse in their communities, according to a 2023 poll by the Bay Area News Group.

On Thursday, volunteers around the Bay — including 1,000 in Alameda County and around 300 in San Mateo County — headed out before dawn to comb through city streets, campsites under highway overpasses, and even remote encampments in flood areas typically hidden from the public view.

In Oakland, Abbott — the director of homeless care and coordination for Alameda County Health — walked the streets near Laney College. RVs, trailers and cars lined entire blocks. A tote filled with dozens of toiletry kits, to be distributed to the people they met, hung heavy from her arms.

At one corner, she stopped her team to inspect a blackened house, seemingly abandoned after a fire. But sheets had been hung up around the back porch — maybe to block the windows and hide people living inside, she suspected.

“Good morning!” she called up to the house. A few minutes later, a man emerged with his dog. He and his wife had been squatting there for a year with no electricity, he told the volunteers.

The census aims not only to come up with a number, but also understand the demographic makeup of the unhoused, as well as the factors that led them to this point. Past surveys have shown that most homeless people are from the county where they are counted. They are disproportionately Black and Hispanic. Nearly half report psychiatric or emotional health conditions, and the majority have been homeless for a year or more.

Community member Arden Tarrosa takes advantage of the warming center at the Contra Costa Health emergency shelter on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Concord, Calif.(Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

Arden Tarrosa, 55, was counted on Wednesday in Contra Costa County at the adult day shelter in Concord. He had been working at a memory care facility until 2021, when he suffered a stroke that left him permanently disabled, he said.

He used to look down upon people he would see sleeping in BART stations — until he fell behind on rent for his Pittsburg apartment, and joined them. Since early January, though, he’s been staying at the Concord shelter, which provides him with meals and clothing, as well as a secure spot for his belongings.

“It’s an eye opener,” Tarrosa said. “I sometimes think God put me in this place to teach me a lesson.”

Some of the volunteers conducting the count in Alameda and Contra Costa counties at one point experienced homelessness themselves. Others came from local social service organizations and used the count as an opportunity to reach out to the vulnerable populations they serve.

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On Sixth Avenue, Alexis Milligan, a staffer with a local HIV prevention nonprofit, chatted at length with a man who had just been let out of prison.

“They are released with no education about the resources that are out there,” she said.

This year’s Point in Time count comes ahead of several ballot measures intended to put a dent in the state’s homeless population. In March, voters will decide whether to authorize spending $6.4 billion to build nearly 11,150 psychiatric beds throughout the state, and in November, they will decide whether to authorize over $10 billion to build new affordable housing around the Bay Area.

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