A man stands near his tent on Commercial Street Street in downtown on March 30, 2023.
A man stands near his tent on Commercial Street Street in downtown on March 30, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For months, the conversation in San Diego has been absolutely clear. Homelessness is growing and it’s growing fast.

But the story that’s going around doesn’t exactly match reality – at least not according to the region’s most consistent census of unhoused people, the point-in-time count. That count shows that in 2022 there were fewer homeless people in San Diego than there were 10 years ago.

View the Homelessness in San Diego County chart in a new tab.

The point-in-time count is flawed. And its methodology has changed over the years, but it is the most thorough effort to count each person in the county without housing.

The 2023 count will be released soon and politicians are bracing for what could be a significant increase. Even if the count goes up, the 10-year trend still has an important story to tell: Homelessness hasn’t increased nearly so much as most people perceive that it has. In fact, homelessness countywide in 2022 was roughly 13 percent less than during its peak over the last decade.

At the same time, homelessness is more visible than ever before. The key to understanding this, at least in part, is downtown San Diego. In downtown, the number of unsheltered people has truly increased, according to a running count by the Downtown San Diego Partnership. Many of the unsheltered people downtown live in highly visible, public encampments.

Prior to 2020 – before the Covid-19 pandemic and before Mayor Todd Gloria took office – encampments were broken up with far more frequency, said Michael McConnell, an advocate for homeless people, who spends many of his days on the street. 

“It was intense,” McConnell said. “It was 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., you’d have cops out ticketing and arresting people for having tents – and sometimes just for having their belongings on the sidewalk. Rain, shine, didn’t matter.”

That heavy enforcement under the city’s previous mayor, Kevin Faulconer, kept the visibility of homelessness down – without necessarily reducing overall homelessness.

“Faulconer drove encampments deeper into riverbeds and canyons. It’s not that they weren’t there, it’s that they weren’t as visible,” McConnell said. 

Palpable desperation – associated with drugs, death and mental illness – also appears to be increasing in a way that makes homelessness more visible.

Homeless people are dying with far more frequency than they have in the past. Deaths have increased from roughly 100 to nearly 600 per year over the last decade, according to estimates from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

That death increase coincides with the introduction of heavy street drugs like fentanyl and a veterinary sedative known as “tranq.” Fentanyl, especially, has been responsible for a massive number of overdose deaths – but it’s also making people high on totally new levels. Fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When people are erratically high, they’re more visible.

“The erratic behavior of people, who may be using substances, it’s alarming to people,” McConnell said. “You focus on those folks and you see tents in the background and you assume everyone is like that. It gets seared into your mind.”

A homeless encampment on 8th Avenue in downtown on May 4, 2023.
A homeless encampment on 8th Avenue in downtown on May 4, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Greg Anglea, the CEO of Interfaith Community Services, also believes that untreated mental illness is increasing. “People who are struggling to get into housing stay on the streets longer,” he said. “Their mental health deteriorates and becomes more visible.”

Anglea and McConnell were clear. They do think homelessness has been increasing, regardless of the point-in-time count’s findings. But they believe our perception of the size of the homeless population has outgrown reality.

It’s important to note that the 2022 point-in-time count was taken in January 2022 – leaving roughly 18 months of presumed growth that have yet to be accounted for.

Important changes in methodology have also affected the count. In 2018, officials stopped counting people for each RV they saw. And in 2019, officials stopped using “multipliers,” which allowed counters to assume more than one person lived in each tent or car. Without those changes, it’s possible the 2022 figures might be roughly in line with those from a decade ago. But even a static homeless population over the course of 10 years wrecks the conventional wisdom.

The 10-year trajectory of the point-in-time count makes it clear that a change in thinking is long overdue. Homelessness hasn’t grown, so much as it has moved around – and so much as it looks different.

The heightened focus that has come with the perception of growth means that San Diego’s leaders have an opportunity to begin to truly deal with a problem that, for years, passed more silently beneath the surface.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

Join the Conversation


  1. Yep, don’t believe your lying eyes. They say the statistics tell us crime is also down.

    1. The story itself quotes 2 homeless advocates who also admit the data is wrong and that homelessness has increased. What a misleading title for this article.

    2. Unless you’ve seen all 8,000 homeless with your own eyes, 10 years ago and today, then yes, they are your lying eyes.

  2. Thank You for this look back at the Point In Time Count. Elected officials and their appointees in San Diego County have failed homeless people since at least 1996, when the city of San Diego reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 4,500 homeless persons in downtown San Diego, with another 550 to 600 homeless in the beach communities; and that “inability to pay high rents” was among the most common reasons for homelessness. https://archives.hud.gov/reports/plan/ca/sandieca.html
    You’re right, it IS time to really deal with this persistent failure.

  3. Besides desperation leading to drug use among the homeless that same desperation leads to suicides. According to the Medical Examiner’s office 17 homeless committed suicide last year. I expect this total will increase as more elderly are forced onto the streets and are unable to cope.

  4. Kudos to Will for digging into the data to show that facts don’t necessarily align with the narrative.

    Speaking of narratives versus facts, does homelessness lead to substance abuse, or does substance abuse lead to homelessness? (Most of the media profiles of homeless folks indicate the latter.) All I know from experience is is that downtown is now rife with what appear to be homeless people who are openingly getting high and acting erratic. It’s a sad day when I don’t feel like it’s a safe place for me to go or to take children to the dowtown library (or many other parts of downtown). Something needs to be done.

  5. Thanks. Good reporting. Very useful, counter-intuitive information on a bedeviling problem.

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