Hundreds of people, more than a thousand at times, live on the streets in downtown San Diego. It’s the region’s largest concentration of homeless people. But just how large and how concentrated depends on which number you’re looking at, when you’re doing the counting and what neighborhoods you count as downtown.

These are important distinctions, because a lot of attention is focused on downtown. City Councilman Todd Gloria pledged to end homelessness there in the next four years. A business group, the Downtown San Diego Partnership, is investing in efforts to identify the city core’s most vulnerable street-dwellers, and put them into housing.

But the fraction is a moving target. As we dive into our reporting effort to better understand homelessness here and what’s being done, we’re getting our bearings on what numbers exist to quantify the population.

Downtown is home to many homeless service providers. It’s the site of the city’s annual emergency winter shelter, and will house the city’s permanent year-round service center opening next month. What numbers indicate how many people live on downtown streets?

The overall region count, the one done each year on a morning in January, includes these neighborhoods in its “central” district:

Balboa Park, Barrio Logan, Core-Columbia, Cortez, East Village, Gaslamp, Golden Hill, Grant Hill, Harborview, Horton Plaza, Little Italy, Logan Heights, Marina, Park West, Sherman Heights, South Park and Stockton.

The 2012 count found 1,122 people sleeping unsheltered and another 2,090 sheltered in that zone for a total of 3,212. (That comprises a significant chunk of the overall countywide count of 9,638 last January.)

But there’s a deeper set of information that a big collaboration of agencies put together in 2010. That collaboration, inspired by a national effort called 100,000 Homes, fanned out across downtown one week in September 2010 to survey people living on the street in the hours before daylight. Teams of volunteers asked questions about health, age, drug use, education and prison records. Then they ranked each one according to an index to measure each individual’s risk of dying on the streets.

That Registry Week count found 1,040 people sleeping on the streets in downtown across 450 blocks. They used the boundary of downtown that the Centre City Development Corporation used: It stretches north to Laurel Street, west to the waterfront, east to Interstate 5 and then zig-zags around Barrio Logan in the south.

Among those 1,040 individuals, the survey teams found 738 people who were willing to answer more questions:

• 275 of them, or more than one-third, had health conditions “associated with a high mortality risk.”

• 75 of them, or 10 percent, were older than 60.

• The oldest person interviewed was 84.

• 150 people said they’d been homeless for a year or less.

The Downtown Partnership keeps numbers for the five downtown neighborhoods it covers; the organization’s security staff counts the number of people sleeping on the streets each month. Those numbers fluctuate depending on the time of year and whether certain services are in effect — like when the city’s emergency winter tent opens and begins housing 225 people per night. I’ve asked for those trends and will include in a future post.

The downtown number might be expanding to include more people next year. Housing consultant Jennifer LeSar organizes efforts to place at-risk downtown homeless people in housing and services. She said she hopes to expand the boundary of the downtown territory up to 25th Street, which would get the downtown zone closer to the same “central” one measured in the regular regional count.

We’ll have more on what various groups are doing about this population in downtown in a future post, but meanwhile, for more on the Registry Week process in 2010, you can read a breakdown of the findings and CityBeat’s coverage of the count.

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

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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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