People’s Park in Berkeley was one of 33 service sites across Alameda Country where volunteers interviewed homeless people on Wednesday Jan. 30 as part of a biennial homeless count. Photo: Tracey Taylor
People’s Park in Berkeley was one of 33 service sites across Alameda Country where volunteers interviewed homeless people on Wednesday Jan. 30 as part of a biennial homeless count. Photo: Tracey Taylor

On Wednesday this week, 233 volunteers fanned out across Alameda County and approached 2,000 people at soup kitchens and food pantries, on the street and in parks, with a view to securing 1,000 interviews with homeless people. The resulting data is used to compile a census of how many people are without homes in the county, and also what types of people they are — be it vets, singles, families or minors.

People’s Park in Berkeley was one of 33 service points at which interviews took place. The count is orchestrated every two years by EveryOneHome, a government agency that coordinates homelessness efforts countywide. At the last homeless count which extrapolated Berkeley data, in 2009 Berkeley’s total homeless population numbered 680. That compared to 2,091 for Oakland. The latest total for the county, in 2011, was 4,341. The 2011 count showed a 13.6% drop in the overall homeless population in Alameda County over 2007. (All the data for the counts, including breakdowns, trends and regional comparisons is available on the EveryOneHome website.)

Councilman Jesse Arreguín, who joined volunteers on Wednesday afternoon at People’s Park to conduct interviews, said he believes the current number is higher than 680, and that there is still a lot of work to be done to help people find shelter.

“The census doesn’t count everything,” he said. “Berkeley has an overall budget of $2.8 million for homeless people with $1 million going to direct services,” he said, “but talking to people today makes me realize the particular challenges we face.”

The results of the 2013 homeless count will be available this summer, but will not extrapolate Berkeley numbers. Elaine de Coligny, Executive Director of EveryOneHome, said the reason is cost. “It’s expensive to get the right sample size for a city as small as Berkeley,” she said. “It’s unfortunate we can’t capture [the regional breakdowns] every time.” Regional breakdowns are compiled every third count.

However, de Coligny said many of the changes in the numbers and profiles of homeless people countywide are reflective of changes at a regional level. There has been a significant drop in the number of vets without homes, for example, partly the result of vet-focused federal programs. (The veterans homeless agencies see are increasingly from Iraq rather than Vietnam, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan pointed out at a press conference held at People’s Park on the day of the count.)

Screen shot 2013-02-01 at 1.01.36 PM
Berkeley homeless numbers, compiled in the 2009 Homeless Count. For larger view, click here.

In addition, the Mental Health Services Act has helped reduce the number of mentally ill people who are homeless, de Coligny said.

Efforts by Berkeley to tackle the chronically homeless have paid off, de Coligny added. The 2003 census showed that category to be the highest in Berkeley compared to other local cities and the reduction since then has been “impressive,” she said.

Compared to other county cities, Berkeley has a low number of homeless families with children, too. In 2009, just 43 of the 680 total were households with minors.

Arreguín, who is leading a drive to implement what he sees as a more compassionate approach to dealing with the homeless in the wake of the failure of the commercial sidewalk sitting ban, Measure S, said he had been surprised at the diversity inherent in the homeless people he spoke with on Wednesday.

“There were long-term homeless people as well as those in transition, youth, vets, people who had been abused, different ages and backgrounds. Hearing their stories helps inform us about what we need to do.”

Berkeley Council moves towards consensus plan on homelessness [01.31.13]
Op-ed: After Measure S failure, it’s time to act on homelessness [01.24.13]
Measure S: will it help or hurt the homeless? [10.31.12]

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...