Last year, the mayor of Santee, Randy Voepel, took issue with a 2011 count that said Santee had 58 homeless people living there.

He sent a letter to the group that coordinates a yearly count of the county’s homeless people, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. The Santee Patch included a taste of the less-than-warm epistolary tone the mayor struck:

”Santee has ALWAYS had 12-15 homeless people (mostly in the River Bottom), this is collaborated by the Sheriff’s Department. For you to raise our count to 58, either reflects poor counting methods or cheating. Change your count to reflect reality sir,” Voepel wrote in a letter to [the Regional Task Force on the Homeless].

The task force’s then-director, Peter Callstrom defended the effort to the Santee City Council. Voepel apparently softened toward the group, and even volunteered to join in the counting effort last January. This year, Santee’s count totaled 26. Voepel said he was satisfied this year’s count was accurate.

But the mayor’s earlier concerns belie a widely felt desire for accurate numbers and the difficulty in obtaining them. Many of the county’s 18 cities and regional nonprofits are paying increased attention to homelessness in San Diego.

“You can’t fix what you can’t measure,” said Dania Brett, who’s coordinating the annual count for the task force, to be held on Jan 25.

We’re diving in to better understand homelessness here. Determining the size and scope of the issue is a place to start. But how do you measure a population that is often concealed and constantly moving? What numbers exist, and how are they calculated?

The regional task force’s number is the most official, commonly cited count. The 10,000 or so homeless people counted in January gave San Diego the third-largest homeless population among cities nationwide, according to a federal study released Monday.

And there’s no way that everyone without a home was tallied. The task force itself admits that number represents a very conservative estimate.

So what goes in to tallying that number?

Every January, while it’s still dark early in the morning, hundreds of volunteers wielding flashlights and maps of U.S. Census tracts fan out across the county in cars and on foot, depending on their zone. They count the number of people they see sleeping in tents, cars and makeshift structures, and on streets and sidewalks.

Then the organization adds in the number of people the region’s shelters reported were sleeping there on the same night. This particular kind of count — a point-in-time snapshot — is required for any region to be considered for federal funding to combat homelessness.

This year, the number was around 10,000. The most current number the regional task force supplied was 9,638 — that’s both the 5,267 unsheltered people the volunteers saw and counted, and 4,371 people who were sleeping that night in shelters.

But it’s just a glimpse, one that relies on the number of volunteers the regional task force can wrangle into helping with the count. (The group’s currently taking volunteers for the Jan. 25 count.)

There are other factors that complicate the count. The volunteers are limited to what they can see. They’re trained not to knock on car windows or unzip a tent. They stay mostly on the periphery of parks and canyons. And the county is a big place — much more spread out than some of the other places where this kind of count happens nationwide.

That also makes compiling data trends tricky. The 2012 total count was about 7 percent higher than the 2011 count of 9,020 people. That might indicate factors like unemployment and foreclosure have boosted the ranks of the homeless, or it may mean an influx of volunteers simply did a better job locating more homeless people. It could be a combination of both.

Once the initial count is done, the task force’s volunteers also conduct interviews in the last week of January with several hundred of the people who were sleeping outside of the shelters that night. Those interviews seek information like age and education, but also connect to demographics like whether the person is a veteran or has children.

Here are a few interesting numbers from last year’s count:

• The city of San Diego had about two-thirds of the counted homeless population in the county, with more than 2,750 counted in shelters and about 3,600 counted who were unsheltered.

• Among 686 unsheltered people who were interviewed after the initial count, 18 percent were veterans.

• Half of the unsheltered people who were interviewed reported that they’d used the emergency room at least once in the previous year.

While the task force’s report is the most commonly cited, it’s not the only number out there.

The County Office of Education uses a broader definition in measuring how many students are homeless — those who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” In the 2011-2012 school year, that population numbered more than 17,000 students across the county’s school districts.

“That’s an extremely concerning number and issue,” said Callstrom, who moved this year from the regional task force to the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

“Is that our future adult homeless population?” he said. “You’re not able to see inside somebody’s apartment where they have another family living on the couch or in the garage, the hidden homeless.”

Another group of numbers has been compiled in recent years to evaluate the homeless population downtown. A project called Registry Week in 2010 counted 1,040 homeless people downtown. I’ll delve further into those numbers in a future post.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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