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Oceanside’s seen a spike in street homelessness – but city officials think the increase has been overstated.

Their argument calls into question the methodology behind the point-in-time count, an annual exercise cities must do to measure the size of their homeless population if they want to receive aid from the federal government. There’s little doubt that it’s flawed, but it’s the only consistent way to compare homelessness in different cities, or within one city over time.

But it’s only a snapshot and sometimes raises as many questions as it answers.

Hordes of volunteers go out on a single morning and count each homeless person they see on the streets and nestled in canyons or underpasses. They don’t conduct a census – collecting personal information or demographic data on each person. Initially, they just take a head count of people they encounter on the streets.

During this year’s annual homeless census on Jan. 29, volunteers in Oceanside counted 392 people they believed were living on the street. That was more than double the total reported for the previous year.

That sounded inflated to Oceanside officials, who investigated the number and zeroed in on the area around Brother Benno’s, an Oceanside nonprofit that provides meals and other resources to both homeless and low-income, working-class families.

The Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the group that coordinates San Diego’s homeless census, recorded 24 people in the area around the center last year. It counted 174 people in that census tract in January, with most within half a block of Brother Benno’s.

The nonprofit typically opens its doors between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. and serves breakfast to 150 to 250 people every morning. Many, but not all, are homeless. Clients often line up or wait outside.

Margery Pierce, director of the Oceanside’s Neighborhood Services Department, believes a volunteer may have mistakenly counted people there who weren’t homeless.

Though Brother Benno’s has seen an increase in clientele, Pierce e said it’s unlikely an extra 150 people came the day of the count. Nearby business park tenants would have complained about an influx of homeless people in the area, she said.

Darryl Harris, operations manager at Brother Benno’s, doesn’t dispute Pierce’s argument. He said many people line up outside before doors open and once they do, dozens eventually come in.

“If they would’ve just started counting people they saw here, that they assume are homeless, the 150 number sounds like how many people show up here in the morning,” Harris said.

Oceanside officials contacted the Regional Task Force about their concerns after the census.

The group couldn’t confirm whether there’d been an issue with that census tract, said Kelsey Kaline, a project coordinator with the task force.

Kaline said the task force trains its volunteers, offers a refresher the morning of the point-in-time count and urges them to use their best judgment.

“We do everything on our end to prevent situations like this but it is inherently a census,” Kaline said.

She acknowledged the process isn’t foolproof. It relies on statistical methodologies and volunteers. It only captures where homeless folks are gathering in a single morning, but not the reasons why.

Yet the task force’s executive director, Dolores Diaz, said this was the first dispute she’d encountered in her four years working on the count.

And she stood by the count’s methodology despite its limitations. After all, part of the value of the count is the fact that all cities follow the same general rules and have done so for years.

Diaz said the census offers an overall picture of homelessness in San Diego in the final days of January and a consistent approach that allows the region to learn about the dynamics of its homeless population and how it changes over time.

Other data sources, such as a list of homeless veterans being collected and a larger database of folks who’ve been interviewed by homeless outreach workers, provide other views of San Diego’s homeless population.

“We have to remember, the point-in-time count is critical but it’s not the only way that we gauge our success in trying to end homelessness,” Diaz said.

She commended Oceanside for the attention it’s giving its homeless population but also wanted to make one fact clear: Whether there was a mistake or not, the count showed an increase in street homelessness in Oceanside this year – even when the census tract in question is removed from the equation.

By that count, unsheltered homelessness is up 38 percent in Oceanside this year – compared with a 19 percent increase countywide.

Lisa Halverstadt

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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