You can’t believe the homeless count – you can only believe we don’t know what’s going on

Here is the huge problem with all the hand-wringing and finger-pointing caused by survey numbers showing a huge jump in homelessness in Sacramento:

You can’t believe the numbers fully. You certainly can’t take them at face value.

When you do take the latest federally-mandated homeless count numbers at face value, they seem shocking. One wonders what the devil Sacramento is doing about homelessness when Sacramento is committing millions to the problem.

And yet?

According to the count made public last week, overall homelessness has jumped 52 percent in Sacramento County over the last two years. According to the count, nearly 6,000 homeless people lived on the streets in January as homeless counters fanned out across the county. They were shocking numbers that generated shocking news stories and TV reports last week.


But within the county homeless report are compelling reasons why we can’t fully believe these numbers or take them at face value.

First, 600 more volunteers counted the homeless this year as opposed to two years ago. Yes, 600 extra counters is a big number. When you have 300 counters in 2017 and more than 900 counters in 2019, there is a pretty good chance all those extra counters are gong to find extra homeless people to count.

This year, unlike past years, counters also canvassed more parts of the county. And they relied more on statistical estimates to gather numbers from areas in the county they did not canvass.

The estimate, taking those factors into consideration, is an increase of 19 percent. But, given the variables in the process, this is not a rock-solid number, either.

The count is known as a “snapshot” of one 24-hour period in January and one night in January in Sacramento County. The estimate – emphasis on the word estimate – was that 5,570 individuals were experiencing homelessness. Was the entire county counted? No.

But this count is seen as the closest to accurate that Sacramento has ever done, which means that past counts have been far less reliable.

One could argue that 52 percent jump, or even the 19 percent, in homelessness are hollow numbers given the enhanced methodology of the most current count. Throwing hundreds more volunteer counters at the task this year illustrates how past efforts to document the homeless resulted in under counts. So, the next count will look back at this one, and say it was off, too.

Even if the current count is closer to a reality of homelessness in Sacramento, that shouldn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.

But if it’s true that what we know about the numbers of homelessness is flawed in Sacramento – and it is – then what’s even more flawed is the amount of critical information that we don’t know and is not disseminated in the current count.

For example, if you ask experts on homelessness for a detailed statistical profile of homeless people, the answer is that we just don’t have enough critical data.

If you ask experts the following questions , you don’t get satisfactory answers: How big of a percentage of our homeless population is addicted to drugs? What’s the percentage of homeless people who suffer some form of mental illness? And, given the endless talk about the lack of affordable housing in Sacramento, what is the percentage of homeless people in Sacramento who are true victims of that?

Some of the answers in the report beg more questions. For example, only 9 percent of homeless surveyed said drugs or alcohol prevent them from keeping a job and stable housing. Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me. About 21 percent reported having a severe psychiatric condition, which also seems like an under count. About 45 percent of homeless respondents said Sacramento needed more affordable housing. OK, but that’s a point that most everyone probably believes.

Is there hard data on how many Sacramento homeless are homeless because they couldn’t afford rent? Not really. This is not to disparage the 2019 homeless count or the people who worked on it. But this count is too often confused as definitive when it’s not.

Without the data, we’re flying partially blind when it comes to confronting the crisis of getting people under roofs and off the streets. How can you cure a disease if you can’t adequately diagnose it?

Granted, the 2019 count of homeless people in Sacramento has some interesting data.

Namely, that 93 percent of the homeless people surveyed in January said they were from this county. This debunks a myth sometimes floated by some, including me, that Sacramento County is a magnet for homeless people.

Given that the current count of homeless is the most robust ever done, the 93 percent of homegrown homeless should speak to us all that this is our problem to solve. These are county residents. We can’t just leave them on the street or put them on buses to Roseville.

About 70 percent of homeless people surveyed were either sleeping outside, in their cars or in buildings not fit for habitation. This figure gives credence to the idea, promoted by Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer and others, that Sacramento should consider allowing homeless people sleeping in their cars to use some designated parking lots that could afford them and the public a greater sense of safety.

But, again, there is so much that the numbers still don’t tell us. The percentage of people who are chronically homeless was at 30 percent in the current count, a slight dip. This was seen as great news by some in the City of Sacramento. But the authors of the homeless report admitted that exploring this dip was “beyond the limits of the data.”

Maybe the dip was caused by outreach efforts championed by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg?

We just don’t know. I have to say that some members of the community want me to lambaste Steinberg right now. He campaigned for mayor on the promise of putting a big dent in homelessness. He said, if you don’t see a decrease in homelessness with your own eyes, that he wants to be held accountable.

That day may come, but it’s not time yet, and here is why. While other mayors in other cities have been blamed for much bigger explosions in homelessness than Sacramento has experienced, I personally think laying Sacramento’s problem at the feet of one person – Steinberg – is simplistic.

If anything, it’s getting time to call out members of the Sacramento City Council who are dragging their feet on getting homeless shelters up and running in their districts. If anything, it’s time to call out Sacramento County Executive Nav Gill for not doing nearly enough to broaden and enhance homeless services, and for not speaking publicly at all except at board meetings. If anything, it’s time to call out residents in well-heeled neighborhoods of Sacramento who whine about homelessness all the time and yet block every effort to have homeless shelters near them.

If anything, it’s time for the Sacramento as a community to wake up and realize that we’re still not San Francisco or Los Angeles. This community can still make major efforts to bend the curve on homelessness before it’s too late.

The homeless crisis didn’t just materialize in the last two years. If you think that, or if you are shocked at where things are now, then you are part of a problem that won’t find an answer by pointing fingers.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.