A homeless woman named Genevieve at an encampment in Vista on Jan. 26, 2023. / Photo by Tigist Layne
A homeless woman named Genevieve at an encampment in Vista on Jan. 26, 2023. / Photo by Tigist Layne

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Last month, 1,600 volunteers took to the streets to count and survey homeless people in each city across San Diego County.  

In North County, that count comes with its own set of challenges. The homeless population is much more spread out, compared to downtown San Diego, but it is increasingly growing.  

I joined a group of about 50 volunteers in Vista. We gathered at 3:30 a.m. and fanned out across the city. 

In the cold and dark hours of the early morning, we searched parking lots, strip malls, street corners, parks, creeks and canyons.  

We peered into vehicles and called into tents, handing out $10 McDonald’s gift cards and a pair of fuzzy socks to whoever would speak to us. 

My group ended up counting about a dozen homeless people in our assigned area, and after speaking to several of them, here’s what I learned. 

The Point-in-Time Count really is a bare minimum count: Voice of San Diego’s Lisa Halverstadt has previously reported that Point-in-Time numbers likely represent a bare minimum of San Diego’s homeless population. And other data by the Regional Taskforce on Homelessness and other organizations has proven that this count is only a snapshot of the growing homelessness crisis in the county. 

I saw firsthand how many factors and circumstances can lead to undercounting. 

For example, the count took place just days after a series of storms hit San Diego. Some of the people we spoke to told us the rainfall displaced a lot of homeless people who were living in Vista’s canyons and creeks. 

As we ventured into these areas, we found remnants of tents, clothes, blankets and other supplies scattered along what used to be encampments for groups of unhoused people. The items’ owners, though, were nowhere in sight. 

The remnants of an abandoned encampment in Vista on Jan. 26, 2023. / Photo by Tigist Layne

We also didn’t come across anyone living in their vehicle. Members in my group noted how difficult it would be to spot someone living in their vehicle, especially in the dark. 

And finally, the nomadic nature of being homeless can also cause extreme undercounting. A couple in my group who were residents of Vista were familiar with several areas where they usually see homeless people staying – people who they recognize and see a few times a week in the same spot. 

But on that morning, we had several instances where the homeless people they expected to see in certain areas, weren’t there. This could be for several reasons – maybe they, too, were displaced by the rain, maybe they got pushed away by law enforcement or nearby businesses, or maybe they just decided to move for the night and ended up coming back the next day. 

Nonetheless, they weren’t counted by us. My group members could only hope that another group was able to count and survey them in a different area. 

The newly homeless population is increasing: The county has recently ramped up data collection on first-time homelessness. The most recent data from the Regional Task Force on Homelessness showed that 759 people were housed while 994 people experienced homelessness for the first time in December countywide.  

As we spoke to homeless people about their backgrounds and current situations, it became apparent that I was meeting the people behind this data. Most of the people we spoke to either recently became homeless for the first time or were re-entering homelessness for the first time in a few years. 

A homeless person sleeping alongside their belongings in Vista on Jan. 26, 2023. / Photo by Tigist Layne

There were a variety of factors that led to them becoming homeless. For Charlene, who has only been homeless for about a year, it was her mental health conditions coupled with the rising cost of living that landed her on the streets. 

Pete, who has a job in construction, has also been homeless for about a year. He was diagnosed with cancer, and with the costs of medical treatments it became impossible to keep up with his expenses, even with a job. 

Others lost their jobs or became sick or were evicted because they couldn’t afford rent any more.  

“You never think it will happen to you until it does,” Pete said. 

Most of the people we spoke to have never sought out homeless services: There are only two low-barrier homeless shelters in North County. Low-barrier shelters don’t require things like background checks, sobriety or program participation to enter. 

There is one additional homeless shelter in Vista called Operation Hope, but it only serves women and families and is a higher barrier shelter. It’s also at capacity and has a waiting list. 

When I asked Pete if he’s ever tried to get into a shelter, he said, “What shelter?” 

He’s right. To get into a shelter, Pete would have to travel to Carlsbad and try to get into one of the two homeless shelters in North County – La Posada de Guadalupe run by Catholic Charities. 

He added that he wouldn’t want to go into a shelter anyway because he has a family out here, referring to the group of people he shares an encampment with. 

Tom has been in and out of homelessness for years, and he’s never tried to seek out shelter or services – it sounded like it had never really occurred to him. 

For roughly six years, there have only been three permanent homeless shelters in North County, providing only 144 beds in total for North County’s entire homeless population, which service providers say is rapidly increasing. 

The responses of people like Pete and Tom raise the question: if there were more available, would more homeless people seek those services out? 

The annual census of homeless people is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all communities that get federal funding for homeless services. The results of the count, which will include data on the size and demographics of homeless populations in each city, will be released in a few months. 

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  1. Thank you for this “on-the-ground report.” This is good journalism. We can trust people who do the in-person reporting. It was informative and helpful to our understanding of the problem. Thank you, Dana El Cajon

  2. Well this was infective. Why not wait until much after the storms and do so in daylight or at least when some light is out? Also unfortunately they will give you a sob story line but bottom line is you can’t help unless they want it which most have drug or alcohol problem and all have mental health issue one way or another. Let’s get real about the issues here. Still kudos to you for going out there and handing out stuff they can use. I’m sure it was helpful.

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