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‘A humanitarian crisis:’ Bay Area counts unsheltered homelesss people after long delay - Energy And Water Development Corp

‘A humanitarian crisis:’ Bay Area counts unsheltered homelesss people after long delay

Experts say homelessness exploded throughout the Bay Area over the last few years, as tents popped up under freeways and RVs lined many neighborhood streets. But numbers on the unhoused remained outdated despite the dire need for accurate data.

This week, Bay Area counties are finally taking a step to find out how many people are living on the street with one-night counts unfolding throughout the region, a crucial event that helps determine how much federal, state and local money is directed to the homelessness crisis.

In Alameda County, nearly 500 people spread out early Wednesday to conduct a count of unsheltered people for the first time in three years. San Francisco is holding its count Wednesday night.

The highly anticipated count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is done every two years and was supposed to be held last year, but was canceled due to the pandemic. Even this year’s count was postponed by about a month due to omicron.

Officials combine a count of those who are unsheltered with data on the homeless population in shelters, jails and other indoor places to get an accurate look at the crisis.

The numbers are shared in a report that also details the demographics of the homeless population and why people wound up without housing. The report is expected to be ready by summer.

Homelessness experts say the pandemic has likely resulted in a massive increase in people living on the streets, but no exact figures have yet been released on the impact of the pandemic.

“This count counts more than any count before,” said Chelsea Andrews, the executive director of executive director of EveryOne Home, the organization that organized the count in Alameda County. Andrews said the count is important to get a “full picture” of the pandemic’s impacts.

In the last point-in-time count in 2019, Alameda County’s homeless population increased by 43% to 8,022 from 5,629 in 2017. Oakland accounted for nearly half and had the highest increase in the Bay Area: 47%. The city had 4,071 homeless people in 2019 compared to 2,761 in 2017.

Some of the volunteers who had fanned out across Oakland Wednesday said they expected that the number of people living outside had increased despite unprecedented state funds available to cities due to COVID. In 2020, the state launched Homekey, which allows cities to purchase hotels and motels and convert them into permanent homeless housing.

About six volunteers gathered at Grove Shafter Park in Oakland for coffee around 9 a.m. after completing counts in their assigned areas. Jared Bunde, a registered nurse with StreetHealth, a county program that aims to address health disparities among the homeless population, counted people near Highland Hospital and the area near Grove Shafter Park.

“Tent density has increased,” Bunde said. “Good interventions have happened… and we are still going to see an increase in the street population.”

Volunteers from EveryOne Home and other organizations spent Wednesday from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. counting people sleeping outside — whether they were in tents, RVs, cars or pallet homes. On Wednesday evening, volunteers will also count homeless youths in shelters throughout the county. And over the next few weeks, volunteers will visit shelters to tally the number of people who are homeless, but living indoors. In addition, the county will survey people sleeping outside and ask their race, health, length of homelessness and housing history.

Each city in Alameda County will receive a report of their figures.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf joined Andrews to count people living outside around Lake Merritt. Schaaf said she counted fewer tents than expected — at least 60 — and said it could be in part due to recent homeless interventions that the city has launched.

Near Lake Merritt, at least two temporary housing programs have launched in the past year. Last June, Lake Merritt Lodge, a six-story, 92-unit hotel opened its door for the homeless and in November, a tiny home village invited about 70 people living in encampments in and around Lake Merritt.

But those solutions are temporary and mostly rely on state funding.

“What we have is completely vulnerable,” Schaaf said, adding that cities need a permanent source of state funding to combat the homelessness crisis.

The sky was still dark as Schaaf walked around the lake counting people sleeping outside. She walked behind a building and found a women sleeping against the door, without any form of shelter. Nearby, she shooed away a rat that was smelling a pile of blankets that appeared to hide someone sleeping in the corner of the gazebo at the lake.

As the sun rose and people flocked to the lake to exercise, Mariam, a housed resident, asked Schaaf what she plans to do about the the unsheltered people living at the lake. Mariam declined to share her last name.

“This is the gem of Oakland and it’s completely trashed,” Mariam said. “This is out of control.”

Schaaf listened to the woman and explained the city’s response to the crisis.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” she said before returning to the count.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SarRavani

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