.Making the Homeless Count

GT tags along on the 2011 Homeless Census and learns how Santa Cruz takes an imperfect science and does one of the nation’s most perfected counts.

I’m not much of a morning person. So when I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. the night before taking part in the Jan. 25 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census, I feared the worst—for all I knew, I wasn’t even an operable human being that early. I’d surely be a bleary-eyed zombie, at best.

I moaned and grumbled as I forced myself out of bed the next morning. But as I filled the largest travel mug I own with some much-needed coffee, I gazed out of the kitchen window into the dark, frosty winter morning and a wave of humbling realization washed over me. Here I was, irritated to be yanked from my warm, comfy bed in my safe little house, grumpily making coffee in my very own kitchen, and yet in less than an hour I’d be setting out to count people who had spent last night, like most nights, outside, prey to the elements. These would be people who rise at this godforsaken hour every morning because they have to keep moving, because they don’t feel safe, or because they can’t be wherever it is they are.

Armed with newfound perspective, I journeyed out into the murky early morning hours to meet with the other census takers at the Homeless Services Center (HSC) on Coral Street in Santa Cruz.

1: Method Makers

Applied Survey Research (ASR), a Watsonville-based social research nonprofit organization, has conducted the Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey since 2000, when a lack of concrete data on homelessness sparked a community movement to change that. With Santa Cruz ahead of the curve, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began mandating that homeless censuses cover_catbe conducted every other year in regions (or “Continuums of Care”) seeking federal funding for homeless housing and services. According to Julie Conway, the county’s housing development manager, Santa Cruz County has received around $1.7 million annually in HUD funds because of the data collected in the biennial homeless census.

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“[And] besides satisfying a HUD mandate,” says Conway, “the data is used for many other purposes, including providing data for grant seeking across the public and private spectrum, as a planning tool to target services and understand each jurisdiction’s housing need, and to assess our community’s progress in ending and preventing homelessness.” She adds that the 2009 Homeless Census helped the county receive three federal stimulus grants totaling around $4 million.

The census must be performed as a point-in-time visual headcount on a single day within the last 10 days of January. The idea is to capture a “snapshot” of the homeless population, fully aware that the number will inevitably fall short of reality. However, ASR, which did 2011 censuses for eight continuums other than Santa Cruz (making for a very busy January), maintains a unique approach that has made theirs among the more accurate. In addition to volunteers, the census relies on homeless individuals who have been trained as guides and who get paid $10 per hour for their help. Each guide is paired with a volunteer, and the teams are given a specific area, or “track,” to canvass for homeless people. For the first time, this year’s guides also carried out a Youth Count—an additional head count performed the afternoon of Jan. 25 that attempts to enumerate the number of local homeless youths, a particularly underreported group.

Some of the guides are also trained to conduct the required Homeless Survey that accompanies the census. In the weeks following the census, which is strictly an impersonal head count, these guides seek out diverse samples of the homeless population and ask them a series of questions, including where they hail from, if they have disabilities and how long they’ve been homeless. While the census provides a quantity, the survey provides a qualitative portrait of the population.

Deanna Zachary, ASR project manager, says that, historically, counties got their numbers by simply adding up how many homeless were in shelters. But innovating the street count proved crucial, seeing as the majority of local homeless are not sleeping at a shelter. In 2009, 68 percent were unsheltered on the night of the count, while only 32 percent slept at one of the county’s shelters.

Homeless guides must be currently or recently homeless, and are selected because they have special knowledge of certain areas of the county. They are encouraged to use their insider know-how to help their team maximize their count.

“It’s easy to spot people who are on the street and visible, but that’s not the majority of our population,” Samantha Green, from ASR, tells me at a training session a week prior to the census. “We do really rely on the guides, and that’s why we [have them] referred from the different agencies so that we have guides who know the different areas, [who] aren’t all coming from one area, and who the agencies feel are really trustworthy and really understand the community.”

Not only do the guides serve as invaluable resources in the search for their peers, but their employment also gives them a small financial boost and a dose of empowerment—for once, their unique local knowledge is being put to good and important use.

This approach has garnered the Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey special national attention. The project is featured as a model census in HUD’s Best Practices, and ASR won the Community Service award from the Association of Applied and Clinical Sociology in 2006 for their work pioneering homeless censuses.

But quantifying any subpopulation is complicated, and getting a head count on the most elusive of demographics—a group that has perfected the art of going unseen—is even trickier. The census adheres to the federal definition of homelessness, but when conducting a visual-only tally, it really comes down to “using your best judgment” to gauge who is or isn’t homeless. The census teams drive or walk through their tracks, but are advised to steer clear of any precarious situations or encampments. What’s more, homelessness is often temporary, and individuals experiencing homelessness utilize any number of options—couch surfing, motels, shelters, the streets, tents, abandoned buildings, cars—and could be anywhere on any one January morning.

These factors come together to make for an ambitious, yet imprecise, task at hand.


cover_TennisPlayer2: Track 1001


It’s 5:30 a.m. in the dark parking lot at HSC as Green gives a briefing and sends newly formed pairs on their way. I tag along with Tracey Higgums, the program manager at the River Street Shelter, who, I quickly learn, has worked with homeless people for 13 years—ever since being homeless herself 14 years ago. But that’s “a longer story,” she says, quashing further questions. Our homeless guide is Stanley Royball, a Saratoga native who grew up skating and surfing in Santa Cruz and was once sponsored by Santa Cruz Skateboards. Royball has known Higgums through the River Street Shelter for years, and the two have a friendly, flippant rapport.

We pile into Higgums’ car, clipboard, map and tally sheet in tow, and head for our first track, “Track 1001,” a driving route that encompasses the Prospect Heights neighborhood. The car’s heater is a warm respite from the dark and cold outside, and Royball jokes that it’s like being in the First Class section of census takers. “Oh, look! A homeless person, let me put my espresso down,” he quips at Higgums, who drives with one hand and holds a coffee in the other.

But an hour later we’re still driving up and down streets in Prospect Heights, it’s getting light, and we have yet to spot a single homeless person—not for lack of trying, however. We mosey down every cul-de-sac, narrow alley and dead end with our eyes peeled, but the only sighting of interest is a plastic figure holding a “Slow Down!” sign that we jokingly categorize as “Undetermined” (an actual category on the tally sheet), but, in the interest of integrity, don’t mark down.

The sparkling homes and manicured lawns of Prospect Heights don’t seem like the type of place homeless would be welcome, but Higgums and Royball say it’s possible there are some hiding out of sight. We drive past a cactus-lined entrance to a greenbelt that Higgums says leads to a large homeless encampment—the type ASR told us to avoid seeking out or entering for safety reasons. “I don’t think there are any people up here, except in those camps Tracey was talking about,” says Royball. “And it’s not cool to just be cruising in to those kinds of places. They’re pretty territorial about that.”

“This is why the count is skewed,” Higgums says, a few streets and no homeless people later. “Because you can’t really count people unless you go over the area with a fine-toothed comb, or if they’re out in the open.”

“But you still wouldn’t get that many here,” replies Royball. “Check it out, this is like the Beverly Hills of Santa Cruz. You don’t see homeless people up in Bel Air.” Royball, who has been homeless off and on for the last several years while he “finds his soul,” currently resides in the Paul Lee Lofts, a co-ed homeless housing project, and is on the waiting list for the River Street Shelter—but he doesn’t expect to stay there long. “I’m back on my feet,” he says, explaining that he’s currently looking for a one-bedroom rental in town. He’s also on the path to launching an Internet-based surf and skate business. “I’m ready to bounce up out of this,” Royball says, referring to the hard-knock lifestyle that’s found him sleeping under cars in the pouring rain or between discarded box springs in a shop’s back alley.

We’ve admittedly embarked on a track that is light on the homeless, but I ask the pair, who are far more knowledgeable than I when it comes to the ins and outs of everyday street life, if they think this is the best time of day to be counting people.

“I don’t think so,” says Higgums. “I think any person who is homeless needs to have access to resources for breakfast and the bathroom, and that stuff happens on the [shelter’s] lot starting at 8 a.m.

“Right now people are starting to get out of their spots and head over to the Homeless Services Center or wherever to take care of themselves,” she continues. “But we’re only six miles into our 12 mile track and we have another track to go—what are the chances that someone is still going to be in their bushes when breakfast is already served? This is definitely not an exact science, that’s for sure.”

Higgums suggests that the count be done during breakfast hours at the shelters, when she thinks the largest amount of people surface, or at events like Project Homeless Connect, which attracted nearly 1,000 people in its first year in 2010.

But her bottom line is funding—however the count can improve, works for her. “It’d be great if we could find a way to do a more accurate count so we could get more funding,” she says.

Just as we begin to resign to the fate of putting a big, fat zero on our tally sheet, we drive down Soquel Avenue and spot our first contender—a man in a suit, listening to headphones, whom my untrained eyes would’ve completely overlooked. Higgums and Royball, who both know him personally, exclaim at his presence and we mark down our first, and only, tally mark for Track 1001.

3: Getting Better

Nationwide, 643,067 homeless persons were counted in 2009. Santa Cruz tallied 2,265. But this figure is in stark contrast to reported service numbers from efforts like the Homeless Persons Health Project, which claims to service 3,000 such individuals in Santa Cruz each year, and estimates from local organizations like the United Way that there are at least 4,624 homeless people living in the county. The job of counting each of them is, ultimately, impossible. Still, ASR—with their Santa Cruz project in particular—strives to make the most of the inherently imperfect science, and is getting better at it with each passing year.

At some point between releasing the 2009 figures and organizing this year’s count, ASR realized they needed a boost—an advantage, a new angle—to make their numbers more precise. Enter Franklin Williams, the formerly homeless local activist, homeless advocate, UC Santa Cruz teacher and all around selfless community member who had just what ASR needed: insider knowledge, lots of connections, and what Williams calls “street cred.”cover_franklin

Franklin Williams

“The numbers were at about 50 percent of what they should have been last time,” Williams tells me over coffee the day after the census. “You have to have someone that’s inside. Those are the numbers you would never get otherwise.”

Williams started the 1.5 Program, a free-meal distribution in Aptos that feeds more than 160 homeless people each weekend, and he has previously served on the board of the Homeless Services Center. However, he approximates that four-fifths of Santa Cruz’s homeless “don’t have anything to do with” local services, and therefore cannot be counted at a shelter or service center. ASR contracted him to tackle the hardest-to-reach people and areas in hopes of improving their overall number, and thus receiving more funding from HUD. Williams formed a 24-person “strike team” consisting of an RV specialist to count homeless RVs (a new category for the census), an Aptos specialist, a downtown/drum circle specialist, and Brown Beret volunteers to help with the Pajaro River levee in Watsonville.

Seated at the back table of Linda’s Seabreeze Café, amid the bustle of the kitchen and chatter of patrons, Williams and I compare census stories. I thought my experience had required odd hours, but his team went out in the middle of the night, penetrating the dodgiest areas and entering homeless encampments (which have previously gone uncounted, and yet Williams says there are around 35 of them). After our meeting, he’ll head to ASR headquarters to deliver his tally sheets, but we won’t know the final results until ASR releases the information in April. However, based on his experience two nights earlier, Williams says he’s confident that the 2011 count will be higher than prior ones. “The last homeless count didn’t find anyone out in Aptos,” he says, “but we counted 96 in Nisene Marks [State Park], and I counted about 68 through my own connections, so that’s about 160 people.”

Thanks to help from the Brown Berets, Williams’ group also blew the 2009 census out of the water in Watsonville, where he says they counted 180 people within three miles of Main Street Plaza. “Those people were really appreciative because they feel like they are on the edge of the earth, like nobody cares about them,” Williams says of an encampment they found seated deep on the levee.

As a former counselor (he received his doctorate from San Jose State University while homeless and living in a van), Williams’ heart and soul are in helping, whether it’s by feeding the homeless or ameliorating the census to get them more resources. When ASR hired him, he agreed under the condition he could involve homeless people and make it a “homeless stimulus,” not just a tally. “You’re never going to get an accurate homeless count, but you’re going to get a really shitty one if you don’t get the homeless to believe in it; to buy into the fact that the higher the count, the more resources we get,” he says.

Williams also did outreach to encourage local homeless people to get counted.

“If you’re homeless, you are the same on the inside, you still feel kindness and softness, it’s just your exterior [that’s different],” he says. ”Everyone else in society makes eye contact and smiles [at one another] but when you’re on the streets, you become invisible. It’s a really soul-crushing thing. I told the homeless when I started this campaign that I call it the ‘homelesscount’—one word—and it means ‘the homeless do count’ and ‘stand up and be counted.’ What I’m trying to say is you are part of our community, we’re not trying to marginalize you, we’re going to find a way to help.”


Stanley Royball & Tracey Higgums

Santa Cruz County hopes to do more than just help—as part of a nationwide movement to eradicate homelessness, the county implemented a 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in 2005. Conway, the county’s housing development manager, says the plan is more a way to measure progress than a true expectation for ridding the area of the issue altogether.

For his part, Williams says homelessness will never go away. “We are not going to be able to solve this problem,” says Williams. “That’s a hard thing for people to accept.”

But he does think Santa Cruz has the ability to reduce and “heal” homelessness so long as it shifts its attitudes and reconsiders how to use funding.

“I don’t think that we use the money as efficiently as we should,” he says, grading Santa Cruz at a C minus for not-so-effective use of funds. “And I think you have to have a different attitude in this town to deal with this crisis. The attitude has to change toward homeless housing first—we need to bring everyone inside and then socially triage them. While they’re there we need to … give them a chance to deal with their addictions, stick with them, give volunteer opportunities if they don’t have a job. We can’t just continue to have the flotsam and jetsam and pushing people out into society with this sink-or-swim attitude—they aren’t going to sink or swim. They’re going to hurt the community more than if we just provide them services.”

The folks at ASR believe that the Homeless Census, despite all of its impurities, has the potential to raise public awareness about, and interest in, homelessness. Peter Connery, ASR vice president, thinks it already has. “Since we started 10 years ago, there has been more awareness that the [homeless] population is more diverse than the stereotypes that are common,” he told Good Times in 2010. “We can go beyond some of the stereotypes … and get to the reality that the homeless are a mirror of our general community and they have all the issues that we have: money issues, substance abuse issues, employment issues, health issues, domestic violence issues.”

cover_terry7He references the widespread belief amongst Santa Cruz residents that our town, and its services, attracts homeless individuals. Connery called this the “Magnet Theory,” and pointed out that the 2009 census found that 62 percent of the people surveyed originated from Santa Cruz County. “Year in and year out we have shown that two-thirds of our homeless lived a ‘normal’ life, or a working life, in Santa Cruz County before becoming homeless,” he said.

ASR’s Green also says that the census and survey serve an educational, humanizing purpose within the local community. “We see homeless individuals on the street every day but when we hear the numbers and see the statistics, our ideas about the face of homelessness changes and that is extremely important to the community,” she says.


4: Track 1002

My team’s second track, 1002, is adjacent to the first but a completely different story. The closer the neighborhood gets to upper Ocean Street, the more homeless we begin seeing—first individuals, and then pairs, and then downright gatherings. After hours of driving with little to show for it, the sudden onslaught of people to tally reinvigorates us. “Look at all them—ching ching!” says Higgums.

cover_kellyBetween the two of them, Higgums and Royball are able to recognize every homeless person we pass or at least easily determine if they are or aren’t, in fact, homeless.

By this time, unbeknownst to us, we are the last team still out. Higgums, who’s dedicated her life to helping homeless, and Royball, who wants to tally with veracity, are consistently thorough on the job. But our meticulousness is met with equal parts laughter, and the jokes get sillier and more frequent as the hours pass.

I recall something Deanna Zachary, from ASR, said to me at the training session. I’d asked her if the safety tips and advice they gave was necessary, and she replied, “I’ve been [doing the census for] eight years and we’ve never had a problem. In fact, what we see is just the opposite—people end up pairing up and really having a good time. Some of the homeless guides feel really proud to participate because their knowledge is being used. And the volunteers feel like they learn a lot and get rid of stereotypes or notions they have about homeless people.”

Around the five-hour mark, Higgums glances into the rearview mirror and asks me, “What’s the longest you’ve ever spent with someone for an article?” By the time we’re finished with our second track, we’ve counted around 30 people, spent six hours in the car together and driven only 58 miles. We realize we could have made it to Los Angeles in that time (“and still have stopped for breakfast,” cracks Higgums) and are officially road trip buddies.

“Instead we’ve just been driving around Santa Cruz,” Royball laughs. “But this is way better than Universal Studios.”

The results from the 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey will be announced in April. Until then, learn more at appliedsurveyresearch.org.


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