Homeless Count Data Reflects Successful Efforts in Addressing Homelessness


The report on the 2019 Homeless Point-In-Time Count for the City of Berkeley has been released and it provides important statistics on the rate of homelessness, the success of Berkeley’s programs, and the demographics of our homeless. Every two years, at the end of January, communities throughout the country conduct counts of the local population experiencing homelessness. This count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but it also provides important information to inform strategic planning, investment, and advocacy efforts to prevent and end homelessness. 

In Alameda County, the count is organized by Everyone Home, the local Continuum of Care, in partnership with cities and service providers. For the past decade Berkeley has conducted a separate homeless count in our jurisdiction. 

This year the count was conducted on January 30, 2019. Volunteers canvassed the city, shelters, and locations where homeless people access services to conduct a detailed survey. It is acknowledged that not every unhoused person was counted as they may not have interacted with volunteer counters. While it is not a complete sample, it is as near complete as can be provided, and provides useful statistics on the population and on trends which can be used for resource planning and policy decision making. 

The report counted 1,108 persons experiencing homelessness in the City of Berkeley, an increase of 14% since the last count in 2017. Comparatively, the countywide homeless population increased by 43% during the same time period. While any increase is unacceptable, the numbers show that our investment to end homelessness over the past two years is beginning to make a difference for those living on our streets. The opening of the STAIR Center, the East Bay’s first Navigation Center, has resulted in over 100 individuals being permanently housed. The passage of Measure P in 2018 has given us millions of additional dollars to address the crisis of unsheltered homelessness. We are continuing to advance policies that increase homeless services, with a focus on a Housing First approach. We expect in the coming years an acceleration in the number of homeless people getting housed as we expand regional and statewide efforts to address our homeless crisis. 

Taking a deeper dive into the numbers provide intriguing findings. For example, the number of people who reported experiencing homelessness for the first time decreased by 36%. This is a testament to our increased focus on stemming the tide of homelessness. Since 2017, under my direction, the City of Berkeley has made its biggest investment ever in programs to prevent displacement. This includes funding for counseling and legal representation for low and moderate income renters facing eviction, one-time cash grants to keep people housed, and a flexible funding pool to help rehouse the homeless. We know that once someone enters homelessness, it can be extremely difficult for them to rebuild their lives. By focusing on anti-displacement, we can prevent that downward spiral from happening. This investment reflects the priority of EveryOne Home. 

While much of the data shows progress, there still are areas of improvement. African Americans represent 57% of Berkeley’s homeless population, despite only making 9% (and declining) of our city’s total population. This is an increase from 2017, which showed that 50% of the homeless population was African American. This is further evidence of the ongoing impacts of structural racism in our country’s housing and economic policies. 

Chronic homelessness (someone who has experienced homelessness for over a year, or at least four episodes of homelessness totalling at least 12 months over the last three years) has increased by 48%. This is due to the significant time it can take to find permanent housing for those on the street, as a result of the significant lack of affordable housing stock. New state and local resources including Measure O, will provide millions of dollars in funding to build and preserve affordable housing. The City is committed to creating new permanent supportive housing for the homeless and providing re-housing dollars so people can get rapidly housed until then. Additionally, while chronic homelessness is up, the number of chronically homeless who are sheltered has increased. This can be attributed to the STAIR Center and the expanded shelter program initiated by the City Council prioritizing beds for those who are the most chronically homeless. In December 2016, the Council authorized the City Manager to activate our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to address the shelter crisis, and the city immediately doubled the number of emergency shelter beds. The Council continued this expanded shelter program in 2017 and 2018, and launched a nightly shelter at the Veterans Memorial Building in Downtown Berkeley. The City is continuing to explore ways to expand shelter capacity to serve more people and integrate housing navigation and services into shelters. 

While the total number of sheltered homeless remained relatively stagnant, unsheltered homeless has increased. This should not come as a surprise, as we have been focusing our limited resources on a Housing First approach. If we focused our resources on just expanding the number of shelter beds, there would not be enough resources to connect people to housing, meaning there would be no path forward to get them out of homelessness. 

Additionally, it should be noted that those who are living in RVs and other vehicles or in an abandoned building are considered unsheltered. In fact, the number of people with zero shelter (on the street without a tent) decreased from 338 in 2017 to 231 in 2019, a drop of 32%. This shows that our outreach in helping out the most vulnerable of the homeless population is showing successful signs. However we are also seeing in increase in the number of individuals sheltering in RVs and vehicles. 

Our work is just beginning. Over the coming years and months, we will be advancing new programs and services to build upon the work we have done. Groundbreaking of the 142-unit Berkeley Way project is slated for next year, which will include 53 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless and disabled men and women, temporary housing for 32 adult homeless men, transitional housing for 12 homeless male veterans, in addition to offices for various social services. The implementation of Measure P is underway, with the Homeless Services Panel of Experts expected to present their recommendations to the Council by November on how to spend these funds. The City is developing a safe parking site for recreational vehicles, we are expanding secure storage, and cleaning up at and around existing encampments to maintain health and safety. Thanks to the leadership of our Governor and legislators it is expected that Berkeley will receive $5 million in direct funding from the state for addressing unsheltered homelessness. 

We are also working more closely with our partners across the county in creating regional solutions to the homeless crisis that we all share. Your support in voting for measures such as O & P has played a key role in enabling us to take action, and with your continued support, we can collectively make a difference and turn the tide on homelessness. It is my goal to have a net reduction in homelessness in the next homeless count in 2021; let’s make this happen.

Jesse Arreguin