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An estimated 8,900 people in San Diego County were sleeping on the streets or in homeless shelters on a rainy morning in January, according to new numbers released Thursday morning. That’s down from about 9,600 people counted in 2012.

For the fourth year in a row in the annual snapshot, there were more people sleeping outdoors, in tents or under makeshift cover than indoors in shelters. About 4,600 people were counted outside, and 4,300 were sleeping in shelters.

The count, the region’s most widely used indication of the local homeless population, depends on hundreds of volunteers who comb streets, alleys and the edges of canyons in the early morning hours one morning every January. The Regional Task Force on the Homeless coordinates the annual “point-in-time count,” and adds data from the region’s shelters and transitional housing agencies to the unsheltered number.

The numbers are fraught with caveats.

It was raining this year the morning of the count, so people may have moved to places where they weren’t visible to counters. Unless specially trained, volunteers aren’t supposed to venture into the canyons, which are popular places to set up camp. And the task force changed its methodology this year — using a different multiplier to estimate how many people were sleeping in cars and tents the counters tallied.

Still, the count “gives us an idea of what’s taking place,” said Dolores Diaz, director of the task force.

Close to two-thirds of the people counted were in the city of San Diego, according to the task force’s breakdown of the count by region. Escondido had the second-highest population counted.

As part of the effort, volunteers asked for more information from a smaller number of people. Among those 700 or so surveyed, 69 percent had been homeless for at least one year. Fifteen percent were veterans. About one-third had a “high level of substance abuse” and about 40 percent described “severe mental health issues.” About one-third also had college experience.

Diaz noted there was a smaller percentage of veterans in the group of people surveyed than among those surveyed last year. She said this was “reflective of our community’s intensive efforts to house homeless veterans.”

But later, Diaz walked that assessment back to a degree, and re-emphasized the count and the numbers gathered represent soft estimates. I asked how the task force can draw such conclusions, then — how do we know the efforts to house homeless veterans are having an impact when this estimate is so nuanced?

She clarified she meant to say the survey data “may” show that impact. “None of this is a hard conclusion,” Diaz said. “There have been enormous efforts to house homeless veterans, but we don’t know for sure” that those efforts are reducing their numbers on the street from the count.

Jeff Sloan, a volunteer whose church served as a deployment center for volunteers this year, said the count gives volunteers a chance to really look at the people they might otherwise pass in their cars.

He said he hoped people will look past the “staggering numbers” released on Thursday and remember each one of the people counted has a different story. “Ending homelessness is something that’s going to happen one person at a time,” he said.

The count is required for cities that want to receive federal funding, but no matter the results of the count, the share of funding San Diego is eligible to apply for is almost entirely fixed. Though the county had the third-highest homeless population in last year’s count, San Diego was eligible to apply for less federal anti-homelessness funding than 17 other major metropolitan areas last year. Congressional representatives, Mayor Bob Filner and San Diego County supervisors have said they’ll lobby for a change to that distribution.

Diaz said she hoped they’d keep championing that cause. “This formula is outdated and needs to be changed,” she said.

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

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Kelly Bennett

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

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