Dozens more homeless San Diegans settled on downtown streets last year than in the previous three years, according to a prominent business group’s monthly count.

In December, the Downtown San Diego Partnership discovered a nearly 60 percent spike in unsheltered homeless compared with December 2014.

In East Village alone, the group reported an 86 percent rise in homeless on the streets. Three other downtown neighborhoods – Core Columbia, Cortez and Marina – also saw increases.

The Downtown Partnership also reported a higher annual monthly average in unsheltered homeless downtown for all of 2015 than in the previous year.

These statistics could foreshadow the results of the annual Regional Task Force on the Homeless count set for early Friday.

The two counts are different. Volunteers for the Regional Task Force on the Homeless descend countywide once a year to count the number of people they see sleeping in tents, cars and makeshift structures, and on streets and sidewalks. Then they add in the number of people the region’s shelters reported were sleeping there on the same night. The total they report is the one most commonly cited regionally and helps drive decision-making about the resources thrown at local homelessness.

The Downtown Partnership count, however, is conducted  in the early morning hours of the last Thursday of every month. It simply focuses on unsheltered homeless residents found in five downtown neighborhoods. The numbers fluctuate each month based on the time of year, available services and scores of other variables.

The increase in homelessness for all downtown neighborhoods from January 2014 to January 2015 was 20 percent in the Downtown Partnership count. Last year’s regional homeless count revealed a 26 percent surge in people living on downtown streets during roughly the same period, though the two groups don’t necessarily use the same boundaries for downtown neighborhoods.

Dolores Diaz, executive director of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, cautions the Downtown Partnership numbers offer just a snapshot of a complex regional challenge.

The homeless can move frequently throughout the year, and while one count may show a significant spike in one downtown neighborhood for a time, an adjacent one could see a drop during the same period or even weeks later. And downtown is just one part of a much larger county.

For example, San Diego County saw a less dramatic increase in homelessness countywide – 3 percent –from 2014 to 2015, according to the Task Force’s count.

Yet the rise in downtown homelessness was clear – and the Downtown Partnership numbers point to another likely boost in those numbers this year.

The reasons for the most recent year-over-year rise in downtown homelessness aren’t straightforward.

East Village, in particular, has long been a hub for homeless services, and the city is in the midst of a shift in its approach to emergency shelter beds. The winter tents that once housed up to 350 people have been replaced with a year-round interim shelter at St. Vincent de Paul Village, which adds up to 250 emergency beds when certain weather benchmarks are met. More passersby are also donating tents to homeless people in anticipation of El Niño downpours. The reason could also be idiosyncratic. Groups like the Downtown Partnership count each tent as housing two people when they tabulate the number of homeless downtown.

There’s also some anecdotal evidence to go with the increases the Downtown Partnership has discovered.

Homeless advocates and those who live on the streets told me they’ve spotted more tents and tarps dotting downtown streets in recent months, particularly in East Village. There seem to be more tents – and more homeless people overall – gathering downtown.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

They’ve seen more homeless people taking refuge outside downtown buildings, too.

Here’s one example captured by NBC 7’s Wendy Fry on Wednesday night:

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Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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