This year’s homeless census tallied 8,427 homeless residents sleeping in shelters or outdoors throughout the region, a 10 percent spike from two years ago.
Just under half of those residents – about 4,100 – were sleeping outside, up 3 percent from the region’s last census of unsheltered people in 2020.
But those numbers likely represent a bare minimum of San Diego’s homeless population.
Other data points – and testimony from the group that organizes the count – suggest the scope of the region’s homelessness crisis is much larger – and that it has grown even since volunteers conducted the count in late February. There are also sobering signs that an already devastating situation on streets regionwide could worsen.
The Regional Task Force on Homelessness, the group that organizes the federally mandated homeless census, separately reports that more than 21,000 distinct people accessed temporary housing such as shelters or interacted with outreach workers from October 2020 through September 2021 – more than double the number of people counted during February’s “point-in-time” count.
The annual number of people accessing services, a statistic that has been rising in recent years, does not include people linked with housing or housing resources, meaning it understates the volume of people who grappled with homelessness during that time. And it covers a period before the expiration of an eviction moratorium and financial aid programs implemented due to the pandemic, which experts predicted would increase homelessness.
During that same period, Task Force data shows the number of people who accessed temporary housing who did not seek that aid in the previous two years was up 11 percent since 2020 and nearly 47 percent since 2019. That means a wave of San Diegans became homeless for the first time in the last couple years.
A monthly count conducted by a downtown business group also points to a booming crisis. While the Downtown San Diego Partnership tracked just a 2 percent spike in the number of people sleeping outdoors downtown and areas just outside it from late February to April, the numbers have surged 68 percent over the past year.
For years, local leaders have eagerly awaited the results of the region’s point-in-time count and viewed the numbers as a reflection of the success the region and individual cities have or haven’t had combating homelessness. Annual press conferences on the topic came months after volunteers canvassed the county early one winter morning to count those living on the street and in vehicles, and the Task Force queried shelters about the number of people staying inside. The exercise has long been required for the region to pull in federal homelessness funding. Regional leaders have also increasingly used the data collected to assess the service needs of homeless residents.
Since she took the helm of the regional group overseeing the count, Task Force CEO Tamera Kohler has emphasized the fact that the count is a snapshot rather than a complete picture of homelessness in the county.
This year, Kohler said bitter cold weather the morning of the late February count added extra challenges.
“It is a minimum count,” Kohler said. “It is a minimum number on a morning that is more challenging than our counts have been traditionally.”
For example, Kohler said some homeless outreach workers reported not finding people where they expected to see them. She suspected some homeless San Diegans may have pulled together cash for a hotel room to stay warm, places they couldn’t be counted per federal point-in-time count rules.
Kohler also acknowledged the uncertainty ahead. Many experts warned of a potential tsunami of newly homeless people as pandemic protections ended and rents continued to rise – and those fears haven’t eased.
“We are still feeling impact from a COVID response and just pulling back from an eviction moratorium so I don’t know that any community can say with confidence that the homeless numbers or population that they’re seeing during the point-in-time count or even now mid-year is going to be a representation of where we’re going to be every month moving forward,” Kohler said. “I think there are still some pieces that we are still waiting to see that probably will impact the homeless system.”
Dan Corvalan, 39, has already directly felt the impact. He said he has been homeless since late March when he was evicted from a downtown single-room occupancy hotel after he was unable to pay his rent on time. He previously received unemployment and rental assistance.
Now, after a stint sleeping on the street in East Village, Corvalan said he’s living in a car and recently was offered an information technology job after a months-long search.
The experience left Corvalan convinced the region needs to step up efforts to prevent homelessness.
“If the city wants to fight homelessness, they need to fight the making of homelessness,” Corvalan said.
Alpha Project CEO Bob McElroy, whose nonprofit runs multiple large homeless shelters, said he fears what’s next for people his organization has already helped move off the street.
On a single late March visit to Alpha Project’s Barrio Logan shelter, McElroy said a handful of former clients the agency previously helped find permanent homes approached him asking if they’d have a bed at his shelter if they needed to return. McElroy said all were facing the prospect of significant rent increases they couldn’t afford.
“They waited patiently for their opportunity, and they found their opportunity and now they’re being squeezed out again,” McElroy said. “I thought we were moving the ball down the court.”
And Sebastian Martinez, executive director of Chula Vista nonprofit Community Through Hope, said his organization has seen a surge in need since late last year, particularly after bolstered unemployment payments dried up.
“Once those things ran out, it was pretty much game over,” Martinez said.
In response to anecdotes like these and past point-in-time data showing a growing population of homeless seniors, San Diego County supervisors in February approved a pilot shallow subsidy program to support seniors who might otherwise fall into homelessness.
This year’s point-in-time count found that one in four unsheltered people were over 55. Nearly half reported to volunteers that they became homeless for the first time in the past year, Kohler said.
The San Diego City Council also recently approved a no-fault eviction moratorium set to go into effect next week that is aimed at protecting residents who are not behind on rent. City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera and other councilmembers have also urged Mayor Todd Gloria to incorporate a housing stability fund into his latest budget to provide short-term rent relief and help people forced to move out of their homes. Gloria did not include that funding in his revised budget released Tuesday.
“In terms of stability funding, it’s critical to making sure that we don’t just end up on a losing battle on a treadmill,” Elo-Rivera said at a budget hearing earlier this month.